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Declarative Knowledge Vs. Procedural Skill

Updated: May 19, 2021

The summer before I started work in the tower industry, I escorted an international World Cup climber in Canada in her (successful) attempt to be the second woman to climb grade D-15. Petzl International provided all of the equipment necessary for this endeavor (I still laughingly remember the glazed eyes of all the other climbers outside of Canmore when they saw the “sponsored-athlete-only” colors of our quickdraws…the manager of my gym begged me to bring him one). Before she arrived, I had to provide video of me belaying and rescuing. There are few “certs” in sport climbing. Credentials are earned by physical proof. An AMGA guiding license is a piece of paper. It holds little value in a rockslide on the Temple of Silence at 8,000 feet and 45 miles from the nearest medical center.

As a climber, her goal was to climb. She knew how to tie knots, how to clip in, and the commands. As her guide, I knew how to check her, how to belay her, and how to keep her out of trouble. If the worst-case scenario happened, I knew how to pick her off the wall and bring her to safety using several slings and carabiners. Or pick her off the wall and secure her the best I could until I could get help, depending on if she were moveable. Her Federation was very specific as to which skills they needed me to demonstrate.

Though they were excited in the idea of one of their athletes climbing one of the most dangerous routes in the world, they were also leery of sending their gold medalist to the other side of the planet during a rock-slide season that just claimed the lives of four The North Face athletes months before. Though my “declarative knowledge” was appreciated, my “procedural skill” was necessary. In present day, this relationship has become very symbiotic, as each of their Federation members are IRATA 3, relaying a great deal of industrial fall protection knowledge to me.

The difference between declarative knowledge and procedural skill is the difference between retained ideas and learned, practiced actions. A simple example is one that a psychologist used: Driving a car. Declarative knowledge can be exemplified by: I know the gas pedal makes the car go. I know the steering wheel turns the car. I know the speed limit is 55mph. I know the brake makes my car stop. Procedural knowledge is knowing how to physically do these things. Procedural skill can be exemplified by: I know how to press the gas pedal to accelerate at a safe speed into traffic and to avoid hitting any parked cars or people, and to use the steering wheel and brake in conjunction with the gas to navigate traffic. The first is a matter of reciting information given to you. The other is a matter of repetition and practice.

When I taught at a gym and certified people to lead climb, there was no written test. I would watch them. I would watch to see them inspect their rope, tie their knots, check their partner, then climb and belay. We did not test their declarative knowledge. Most of them had declarative and procedural knowledge. We needed to see if they had procedural skill. Procedural knowledge was knowing how to physically use the equipment. Procedural skill was using the equipment in a manner that protected the climber. Knowing how to use a belay device keeps a climber from hitting the ground. Using it correctly means reducing the risk of injury when the climber falls.

In my time in the tower industry, I have learned a lot about the knowledge base that is expected of our technicians. From day one, tower climbers are barraged with numbers provided by OSHA and ANSI. 5000-pound anchor points unless it is determined by a qualified person to have a safety factor of 2. 3000-pound anchor points for positioners. 3600-pound certified anchor points. 22kN connectors with 3600-pound gate-strength. 6-foot maximum free-fall. Declarative knowledge is very easy to quantify. I can give you a written test and ask you to regurgitate these numbers. But what does it mean?

We put a lot of emphasis on our technician’s knowledge of the physical characteristics of their equipment and having “certs” that prove that they were exposed to information before starting to work. Everyone needs CPR/First Aid and Bloodborne Pathogen certs. But does that prepare us? No basic First Aid training teaches what to do if a technician is cut by a grinder or saw. No basic First Aid covers what to do in the event of a fall. This is something I had to discuss with emergency surgeons and IRATA 3’s. There is absolutely nothing on falls or crushed hands. We like to scare people about “harness trauma” but we do not teach them what it is or how to alleviate it.

With the 10.48 ANSI attempted to address a paramount concern in our industry: Worker deaths and injuries. Our numbers are astounding. No one else in the world can “boast” these sorts of numbers. When reading the 10.48 one thing becomes clear: They want TRAINING. But I think in our effort to assure training we may have been caught up in the minutia.

My friend in the Baltics who works on towers does not have an RF meter. He was informed of RF when he started working by his employer. His employer told him very basically “It can burn you and make you sick. Don’t be in front of active antennas. If you feel sick or have a burn come down and rest in a cool place. Drink a lot of water.”

He does though know how to apply a tourniquet at height and evacuate his partner. He is tested on it every six months. They are not taught “in 15 minutes you will die from harness trauma”. They are taught to recognize Orthostatic Intolerance and how to alleviate it. His rescue ropes do not sit at the base of the tower. They are brought up every day and rigged before work starts. They are brought down every night and stored securely. Each technician carries a descender and a back-up on their harness so that any person can get on those ropes immediately. Their ropes are the same size as their positioner ropes so that all tools are universal. He has no “certs” to speak of except for his IRATA 2 license. It proves he has spent a minimum of 1000 hours on ropes or some sort of fall protection. Competence at heights is expressed in Procedural Skill, not Declarative knowledge.

The first thing we like to say is that other countries do not keep records as well as us. But this is simply false. Last year a dropped wrench in Turkey was documented and released internationally as a stern warning to all technicians. For reference: In a tiny region like the Baltics, employers and the industry require competency tests every six months on physical fall protection skills and pertinent First Aid. We require Competency tests every 2 years and basic CPR every 2 years as well but emphasize RF Safety. To date, the American Cancer Society has registered zero deaths or long-term illness caused by RF radiation. But yet in 2020 eight of our technicians died as the result of falls or rigging accidents.

I love the ANSI 10.48. It proposes a functioning guideline to base our training from. But I think in our efforts to conform to this guideline we may have lost track of the big picture. When we look at all our industry accidents, were the technicians lacking in Declarative Knowledge, or Procedural Skill?

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