The Day the Warning Light Actually Mattered
Things often work just fine—until they don't
By Neil Houtman, Local 52 and National Board Member
I like to think that cars should last for 300,000 kilometres or more, generally speaking. I know this is often not the case, but I try.
Of course, as they age, vehicles require more money and more patience and understanding. You get that nice butt groove, but the vehicle shakes and rattles a bit more, gets a bit louder at highway speeds, and maybe the paint job is not what it once was.
I am currently encouraging/bribing a 2010 Honda Civic to get to 300,000 km. Through a series of unfortunate appointments with the mechanic, I have spent a rather large amount of money on the car.
I got new tires for summer, then less than 200 metres later (not exaggerating!) I needed a new clutch, and two weeks later needed new front brakes complete with rotors and calipers. Two months after that, I needed a muffler (covered under warranty) and rear brakes.
So just over a month ago, when the light for the parking brake stayed on, I was not impressed. I jiggled the lever and the light went off. That solution worked for a week, then the light just stayed on. I knew the brakes were releasing, but the light just stayed on. I felt I could live with what was probably a sticky sensor.
It was not a sticky sensor.
I was working at a building about 110 kilometres from home. When I went for lunch, I noticed I had very little braking power—certainly not enough to risk driving home on the busiest stretch of highway in North America: Highway 401 across the top of Toronto.
I called CAA and they informed me they would send a truck but, given the current global pandemic, I would not be allowed to ride home with the driver. Thankfully, I was near a train station and was able to get close enough to home to get picked up.
I learned the culprit was a leaky caliper, which had been replaced at the beginning of summer and was, thankfully, still under warranty. I was also able to get a loaner car from the mechanic, so I did not miss a day of work. Given the circumstances, it was a happy ending.
I acknowledge it could have been different. The 401 through Toronto is up to 18 lanes wide and, at peak, nearly half a million vehicles travel it daily. At times, speeds average 120 kilometres per hour but can drop to zero in a second.
I might easily have learned my brakes did not work in those dangerous circumstances. Things often work just fine until they don’t, and this time I was lucky.
In construction, we are required to do pre-use inspections on machinery. They are supposed to reveal any issues with the machine. When performed diligently, they can reveal leaks and slowly failing systems—much like a brake-fluid leak.
We can become complacent about the small shudders, nicks, dents, covered labels, muddy tires, or functions that become a bit sloppy, especially on older machines. It can be easy to ignore lights, dials, and gauges that tell us things we don’t want to know.
Reasons may include being behind schedule, only needing the machine for 10 minutes, not wanting to have two workers waiting for half a day until the machine is fixed (can you imagine the cost?), or thinking of a way to work around the problem with tie-wire or duct tape. And this pressure to ignore things can come from internal and external sources.
The sad thing is that across the construction industry you would be hard pressed to meet a worker who does not know a story, even second- or third-hand, of a critical or fatal injury caused by malfunctioning equipment.
In any workplace, we cannot allow things to work just fine until they don’t. We must pay attention to all those warning signals, because luck eventually runs out.