Summit Fever and Its Impact on Job Safety

Have you ever considered how outside elements might be impacting job safety? There is a term in mountaineering that describes accidents that often occur towards the end of a climb; it’s called “Summit Fever.” It’s an all too familiar way for climbers to succinctly describe the series of poor choices another climber may have made when they had the summit of the mountain in their sights. To those not in the moment or influenced by their environment, these otherwise safe climbers' choices seem reckless. Yet experienced mountaineers know exactly what influences led them to make poor choices towards the end of the climb, and their awareness of these influences is what may have prevented them from making the same disastrous choices.

In mountaineering terms, Summit Fever is the drive or compulsion of a climber to reach the summit of the mountain no matter the cost. They have invested time, energy, and resources into their goal and are so close to the end that they allow their judgment to be impaired in their effort to “get it done.” They make choices toward the top of the mountain that they would not have made earlier in their journey. Two factors contribute to this impaired judgment; the physical environment and the psychological impact.

Physically the environment has changed, and so has the physical state of the climbers themselves. Toward the top of the mountain, the air is thinner, and their bodies start to become fatigued as the climb takes its physical toll. This is mentally taxing on even the most experienced of climbers. How they respond to mental stress and fatigue can be the difference between life and death.

From a psychological standpoint, the more time and energy a climber puts into a task, the more invested they become in its completion. Lower on the mountain, when their investment in the task is not as great, it’s easier to turn back in the face of changing conditions or emergent risks. The impact of schedule pressures is also less since it seems as though there is still time to make up for any lost ground. Additionally, almost everyone is influenced by the need to complete a task (trigger alert), especially us men. We like to compartmentalize and drive a task to completion to check that box off. This compulsion can lead to risk-taking and dangerous results.

The concept of “Summit Fever” can be applied to our work, especially those jobs that are larger in scope and personal effort. We become highly invested during outages, overhauls, major installs, or any job we have devoted significant time, energy, resources, and effort into. Just as in mountaineering, we can be physically and psychologically influenced as we near completing a long or arduous job.

Although we may not have the physical challenges of thin mountain air, we still run the risk of being impacted by the physical challenges associated with a long, protracted job. Mental stress and fatigue only increase as the job progresses. This is especially true during maintenance outages or significant overhauls. Often our work schedule shifts from our normal 8 hours a day, five days a week, into 12-hour shifts with no days off until the outage is completed. It’s all hands on deck until the system is restored and the company makes money again. Toward the end of our climb, we often find ourselves hours, days, or weeks behind schedule with a supervisor whose only job seems to be pointing this out to you and your team. These factors will wear you down as the job grinds on. You are likely not as energetic or mentally “checked in” as you were at the onset of the journey, which can impact your conservative decision-making.

Psychologically, we have a near compulsion to see a task that we are heavily invested in completed. We crave that sense of accomplishment. Without a final product or result, all of our efforts will feel fruitless or futile. We must see the job to completion; otherwise, what was it all for? It’s not just the schedule pressure that we feel; it’s our own need for a sense of accomplishment that drives us to make a risky decision.

Be aware of the impact that Summit Fever may have on our decision-making as we try to restore from an outage, complete an overhaul, or finish any long, difficult job. Recognize that the conservative decision-making you would have used earlier in the process may now be compromised by your fatigue or desire to “get it done.” You don’t have to be on the side of a mountain to have your judgment impaired by Summit Fever.

Need more information? Knowledge Vine can help! Contact us today and begin your journey of improved human performance.

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