An alternative view on safety: behavior based safety concept for rope bondage

We talk a lot about safety in bondage. The most discussed issue still seems to be a nerve damage. Even though, quite recently the issue of testing hard points was finally brought up. What is still missing is a structured approach to evaluate unsafe behavior. Surely, we gossip maybe about specific styles or even specific individuals being “unsafe” – but what could this actually mean? Unsafe – compared to what? 

I’m PhD chemist and in my professional career I dealt mainly with chemical reactions that included flammable liquids and explosive gas under higher pressure. I did both experimenting with this reactions as well as designing commercial equipment for them. Just think of these pots for accelerated rice cooking – not filled with rice and water but gasoline instead.

In chemical industry we permanently deal with inherently unsafe situations – as we do in rope bondage. The best way to avoid incidents and environmental pollution would be to do no chemistry at all. Similarly it would be the safest way to avoid incidents in rope to just cuddle. Hence, as a society we seem to need chemistry whilst some individuals decide they need rope bondage. In this article I mainly refer to suspensions but many aspects are applicable also for risk-aware floor work, e.g. with neck ropes or predicaments.

Once we consciously decided to take the risk of an inherently unsafe situation, of course, we do all we can to make it as safe as possible. Conceptually there are two aspects to consider:

  1. Technical measures
  2. Human Behavior

The technical aspects must be cleared first. No matter how good your rope handling is, when the hanging point isn’t fixed properly or you use old, wear-off rope, the life or health of the person in ropes is on risk! Technically there is a chain of elements that hold the person in ropes. The weakest part defines the total risk. I believe most people in the scene are aware of this chain, so I will not cover this in all extend, but I also believe I doesn’t harm to note the elements again:

  1. Fixation of the hanging point (structure of the ceiling, dynamic load of the hooks, ..)
  2. Connections (ropes, chains, carabineers, materials from climbing, …)
  3. Ring or Bamboo
  4. Ropes for suspension

There is a literature out for each of these single items. Some of the statements contradict each other. I think it is important to inform yourself about the pros and cons and take good – safe – decisions.

The second aspect is as crucial as the first. Even with the best technical preconditions, the scene is as safe as the humans involved in it behave.

Coming back to my professional heritage, in these days, in chemical industry most of the incidents happens because humans behave unsafe. This doesn’t mean that someone actively violates safety regulations or intentionally does risky stuff (like the crazy professor in movies, you imagine since I mentioned that I am a chemist – gotcha?).

No, it is just behavior we develop in our daily routine: little shortcuts, work-abounds, flaws, or imperfections. For all of them we have a good reason: stress, hurry, multi-tasking, and routine (it worked 100 times). Every day unsafe situations happen.

In chemical industry, there are studies that conclude that for every serious (or even deathly) incident there are 10 incidents with light injuries and 100 incidents without harming a person (lucky near misses) but 1000 unsafe situations. (LINK)

I think this is transferrable to the rope world. There are only a few serious incidents known. Much too often we blame it to the individual and his / her unsafe ethics. But there is the same pyramid of events. There might be one serious incident reported in FetLife, but before there were 10 drops with slight bruises. And then there were 100 situations where everything went well in the end: a slipping rope that could be caught in the last second or a serious rope jam, a jam that only could be resolved with the help of the neighbour in the jam. And there is the moment you realise you about to open the knots from the wrong tsuri line, the line you drop the head, not the ankle…

Above of these, there are these 1000 “unsafe” situations: sloppiness in fixing the ropes, confusion in line management, provoked rope jams, miscalculations of the body mechanics during a transition – and many more. Does this sound familiar?

The approach in the chemical industry is to tackle the unsafe situations. This makes the basis of the pyramid smaller, therefore reduces the likelihood of this one serious incident. I suggest the same concept to my students when they approach suspensions.

Safety must become a habit, a value, a state of mind.

It is about what we do every day, and how we do it. It is not about to know a technique, e.g. a routine of bringing down a model safely. It is about to embody safe routines. How to bring down a model that lost consciousness? How to stay calm when they are in panic or screaming out loud? How to deal with a situation when tired or overly (sexual) excited?

As I mentioned above: in the chemical industry everyone knows about safety nowadays. It is about what we do everyday during our job. And it is not only about the beginners. Even experienced and well trained teams or individuals can be of high risk when behaving unsafe.

For many aspects it is helpful to develop procedures or routines: the check of the main line just before every transition, a routine to check the locks, a clean tie off, no matter what. Technically it is not rocket science. It is about safe connection of suspension lines, about safe lock-up of the suspension, and about to have a fast and reliable “exit strategy” in case of emergency. It can be taught in one single day workshop. But it needs practice and experience to become “embodied”. 

This is a bit of a pickle, as to get experience in handling suspensions one needs practice. But how to practice safely, when you don’t (yet) have an experience? 

Here we need to leave the “analogy” from chemical industry. There are highly formalized procedures, formalized trainings, audits, 4-eyes principles, etc. Rope suspensions often are a highly individual endeavour.

So here is my advice:

  1. Properly learn the technique. Go to a workshop, ask an experienced person. Look closely, take notes (or a video). Ask questions. Understand why the teacher suggests the specific technique or routine.
  2. Simplify. Standardize. In all the diversity of rope bondage, there are only a few principles one needs to know for suspensions: Tie-off close to the harness, tie-off close to hard-point, one technique each for Ring / Carabineer and Bamboo, how to create friction, how to manage a person flawless down, etc.
  3. Learn / practice one technique at a time. Don’t get yourself confused with too many variations of the same thing.
  4. Start slow and low. Start with semi-suspensions and then proceed with simple suspensions.
  5. Keep it simple and clean. Don’t yet mess up your tsuri-lines, just because it looks better.
  6. Seek for assistance at the beginning when you step ahead: a guided practice session, a peer rope, a jam – just any situation where you could call for help in need. And then: keep your ego low and call for help, if needed.
  7. Stay on your level. Advanced Riggers or professionals often do have a different risk profile AND high levels of practice. What is „safe“ for them is not necessarily safe for beginners.
  8. Observe yourself and learn from your mistakes. Be critical and try to find better solutions. Remember: The unsafe situations – aka the ones where actually nothing happened – are the basis of the pyramid.

And when you mastered suspensions the crucial part starts: to stay present and alert and improve day by day.

And when you want a support on this topic: join us for Special Lab: suspension lines and tie-offs on bamboo in Berlin, on Sunday, 13th of January 2019. 

 

This entry was posted in Thoughts.