27.11.2016 : Colin Pearson

Cotton wool and tree houses

A tree house is a learning environment – it has no cotton wool. A high voltage substation is another story.

I recently built a tree house. Actually it’s not a tree house as it has no roof or walls. It’s a platform in a tree. It is a learning environment. It has no cotton wool.

There’s no soft padding around or below it. The platform has edges with the only barriers being the branches it’s surrounded by. There may be minor falls. 

The rope ladder accessing it squeezes between branches and being in an old-man pine tree, those branches are covered in course rough bark. There will be scrapes and lost skin. 

Children using it will learn about risk taking and consequence. They will learn to think about ‘what if’. 
They will also learn about the reward of taking risks. They get a view. 

They get to access an area just for them… If they chose to take a chance, to cross a comfort zone and enter a challenge zone. 

They’ll learn the reward of taking on risk. Some of the risk is only perceived, not real as it’s mounted a tantalised timber beams on sturdy tree boughs, anchored with galvanised bolts. But there are certainly perceived risks as there are visual gaps in the platform boards… Just enough make the risk seem greater. 

It’s in a location where community kids can access it and the owners of the users i.e. parents of the children, thank me for making it; willingly accepting that there may be incidents. 

It has no cotton wool in its design and that’s important.
If it was smooth edged, soft and barriered it wouldn’t be special. It wouldn’t be desirable.
It would not be rewarding and it might as well be virtual.
And it would not be a learning environment.

I recently acted as Design Manager for a high voltage substation. It has walls, barriers and fences. It is not a learning environment. It has engineered cotton wool.

Its design ensures safe working distances. There are plans and methods available to isolate it, and controls to prevent accidental operation.

Infrastructure and industrial sites are not a learning environments. They are the outcomes of much learning and thought.

Safety risks cannot be taken in such locations. Design which allows or encourages employees to cross from comfort zone into challenge and danger zones should never be encouraged. Good design should prevent it.

The engineering needs to be fit for purpose and right sized. Oversized components are expensive and can lead to construction risks that need not be taken.

The consequence of physical risk is too great. Unlike the skin removed by the bark of a tree limb, it may be a limb removed by the tree. Sadly these errors are still being repeated on some construction and industrial sites.

Consequence and financial risk can be calculated, quantified and appropriate mitigations justified.

Infrastructure projects need cotton wool. And experienced engineers to determine where to place it. 

Call me. I might even let you visit my tree house.

Colin Pearson

About the Author

Colin Pearson

Associate - Power Systems Engineering

Colin has led many wind farm grid integration studies, along with new substation builds and upgrades from 11kV to 400kV. His career as an electrical engineer started with 1000’s of wires connecting dozens of standalone devices and it’s migrated to often using less than 10 intelligent devices and a few fibre optic cables, fitting well with his interest in efficiency, sustainability and renewable energy.

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What Do You Think?

Colin · 19/12/2016 12:30:10 AM
Bert, I'd not thought about it in such a broad way! Thanks for your insights on my article. And of course thanks for your mentorship in my first few years of working. As I was building the tree house I'd considered learning from mistakes and putting knowledge into practice but not the other aspects you've highlighted. Seems in my time working with you I didn't didn't pick up everything. Always learning!!

Bert Thompson · 16/12/2016 7:49:13 AM
Hi Colin,
I agree mostly with the meaning of your Tree House in relation to life in general, and probably a work environment.
It is I suppose, a simple way of explaining the difficulties, problem solving and results..
To me, I can see main ingredients of life in the T.H. eg. Communication, Listen,and sometimes learn from your subordinates, Patience, Discipline ( within reason ), Initiative, Learn from your mistakes,and remember, Knowledge has no value unless you put it into practise.
Regards, Bert.

Colin Pearson · 4/12/2016 11:37:18 PM
Phil, I agree with you. Personally I think some self responsibility should be allowed (even encouraged?). However in an over the top politically correct world any asset owner encouraging self responsibility would be dramatically increasing their liability should a preventable incident happen. There's the extreme view of extensive cotton wool, or the opposite to encourage 'Darwinism' as a method to weed out the weakest. We're more risk adverse now however somewhere in the middle should be able to fit modern society. That's if its carefully thought out and every action, activity, sport, toy, structure, etc does not simply get slapped with an OTT one size fits all style safety system. That's where the skill comes in, right sizing the mitigation.

Phil Caffyn · 1/12/2016 11:51:05 PM
Great thoughts, Colin.

I think a lot of our risk averseness is simply knee-jerk stuff which unfortunately leads to layer upon layer of bureaucratic restrictions which is impossible to get rid of. Unfortunately taking responsibility for one's own safety doesn't seem to feature much in that thinking...

Colin Pearson · 1/12/2016 8:17:49 PM
Craig, thank you. I really appreciate your feedback. Engineers and infrastructure owners understand the need for Safety in Design and what is trying to be achieved through it. It's the human behaviours that are the real challenge! It'd be so much easier is all general public, operators, maintainers, builders, trades and users could be relied upon to behave in a consistent way and always use common sense. Sadly not everyone behaves sensibly. Some have grown up playing in a virtual world where game over, at a single button press, becomes restart. Too easy. Little or no consequence. At other times fatigue or stress can make normally safe people behave in ways they wouldn't typically. To provide full protection can lead to excessive controls being added to designs. Appropriate learning environments, some of them old fashioned and risky like tree houses, can help modify work behaviours as risk mitigation becomes an automatic part of the way people move, even when fatigued. Safety isn't just controls. It's whole cultural change and carefully considered protection. Sometimes it's also a dose of managed risk in learning environments.

Colin Pearson · 1/12/2016 7:57:38 PM
Thanks for your comments Mike. As you say life is about balance. Using controls to keep children completely away from playground risk leads to them not learning how to identify safe and not safe. They also don't learn the reward that can be gained from taking a chance, accepting a challenge, then overcoming the tests it brings them. Often the learnt behaviour becomes don't try anything new, watch and don't do, live a life less than they're capable of. Not knowing when too far is too far can be deadly in the work place and some of that judgement skill is learnt via the small mishaps that occur earlier in life. Understanding risk and consequence is such an important life skill. There's a meme stating "Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go". As engineers we can control the heck out of systems and processes however that would lead to OTT cotton wool (and expense!). It's all about balance :-)

Mike Logan · 28/11/2016 11:37:07 PM
It is a good message to explain the benefit of a young person realising danger and not being freightened to "take a risk". Having young children myself; you don't want them to be stressed or hurt, and equally not wrapped in cotton wool. So where is the balance. A good engineer should not take risks but must recognise and appreciate the consequences of their actions. Can you do this if protected by cotton wool so you can't be hurt even if you make a mistake? There is a difference in taking my kids up the Fairfield Horseshoe, they had no high viz or handrails, and onto a high voltage substation. So if they experience the first scenario, under my supervision, they will be better placed to know where to put cotton wool when they enter a more dangerous world. So I think I'm with Colin; learn and judge the consequences of your actions and apply experience to protect others. But you shouldn't remove the learning experience. Everything wrapped in cotton wool will appear safe until a something changes or is found missing. Only with learned experience can you make the choice of where to remove cotton wool. That's what I want my kids to understand.

Craig Brown · 28/11/2016 10:35:21 PM
Great article Colin. This approach allows people to understand and accept that when engineering cotton wool is used its there for a reason and required rather than an inconvenience or bureaucratic killjoy. All children need these learning environments.