Hard hats are often awkward, sometimes inconvenient and occasionally dangerous. Nowadays hard hats are compulsory in construction. But in 1982 they were less common, especially when working in the jungle. They probably have rarely been useful as a means of commanding respect – yet a hard hat on steroids once almost got me into big trouble.
In 1982 I supervised the field aspects of a geological and geotechnical services project at Ok Tedi, in Papua New Guinea. I had been selected from candidates within Dames & Moore’s worldwide staff to take over from Matt S~, a charismatic engineering geologist who had pioneered the project from its start in a rough patch of jungle clearing at Tabubil. After a few months, Matt itched to get on with another grass-roots project, not being keen on the management aspects of running a crew that had grown to be eventually some 70 engineers, geologists, geophysicists, drillers and support staff.
The professional staff were young geologists and geotechnical engineers from Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Their average age was about 23. They were very high spirited. They revered Matt, a Brit, and before I got to the site, were grumbling and whingeing about The Yank (me) coming to replace him. Despite my definite non-Yank accent, I expected the transition to be uncomfortable for a while. Don G~,a senior colleague in Honolulu, who had nominated me for the job, hit on a solution. He found a hat that would command respect and attention – a toy Fireman’s helmet, bright yellow with a flashing , screaming red siren on top. He gave it to me as I boarded the plane from Honolulu to Sydney, Australia en route to starting my new position. Don felt that the Leadership hat would attract more respect but I felt a right idiot as I walked onto the plane carrying it (although I don’t recall the siren being on.)
At the beginning, Matt and I had some problems with our leadership transition. He could not meet me from the plane so I was picked up by one of the crew. I offered to collect Matt myself from his assignment and so drove his gorgeous new Land Cruiser to the air strip to meet him. A little while later Matt passed me as i stood beside the vehicle watching a team from our client hauling his lovely Land Cruiser out of the ditch. I had skidded off the road not being used to the slippery red clay trail. Furious, he recognized his vehicle but not the clown who had ditched it.
That upset was not the most promising start to the leadership transition. Nevertheless I did not immediately need the Leadership hard hat. I had to to earn respect the usual way. It took a while but eventually was accepted by the crew. When he left a few weeks later Matt was happy that I would not ditch his crew as I had his vehicle.
A problem soon arrived to complicate my life. A new Owner’s Representative arrived at the project. He had a thing about hard hats. He decreed that everybody must wear one when outside of the camp buildings, including sub-contractor field engineers and geologists, drilling staff and helicopter crews. I was able to win some compliance from my staff but it was hopeless to impose his command on our drillers, independent thinkers and doers, who anyway operated miles away from the main camp, in deep and remote jungle.
The helicopter crews tried to reason with the Owner’s Representative. Wearing hard hats around choppers seemed a silly idea then, although it probably is not nowadays. Flying debris is a hazard around helicopters- even twigs could fly into, and damage, the rotor blades. So, fugitive hard hats could do real damage during a drill move, when heavy loads were being lifted, with drillers and staff beneath the aircraft as they hovered, slinging loads onto the carrying hooks. But the Representative would not budge from his position: Everybody must wear a hard hat on the job or else they could leave the job.
Somebody recalled that I had the silly Fireman’s Leadership hat and must have “borrowed” it. One morning a chopper pilot strode into the packed mess (eating room) for breakfast wearing the hat, with siren wailing and red light flashing. The Owner’s Rep was there. He went nuts- he decreed that whoever owned the disrespectful hard hat would be fired. The hat went into hiding for a short while, only to reappear at our next raucous Saturday night party, to which the Owner’s Rep was not invited. That night and for many more parties, a helicopter pilot would make a Grand Entrance into our camp with wailing/flashing hard hat on his head. Eventually, reason must have prevailed, since the Owner’s Rep relaxed his absolute decree to Safety Suggestion.
The chopper pilots were welcome to the Fireman’s hat. I never needed the silly thing for it’s intended purpose, then or since: I have a natural talent for attracting attention, although only rarely respect…