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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