Swiss Cheese

This blog post will try to tie together several of my favorite things: Cheese, caving, and accidents.

I was making lunch the other day and I was looking at the stick of sliced Swiss cheese I had. I should note, I love Swiss cheese, especially with a good roast beef sandwich.

But first, an existential question.  “What is a cave?”

Oh, that’s easy, it’s a passage through rock in the ground.  In other words it’s the area where there’s no rock.  Great. Let’s start simple. I think we can agree if it’s dark and I can walk through it, it’s a cave. What if I have to crawl? Yeah, that’s still a cave. What if I have to shimmy through and can barely fit? Yeah, that’s still a cave. What if I can’t fit, but one of my much smaller friends can fit through? Yeah, that’s a cave. But what if the entire thing is too small for anyone to crawl through but small animals can? What if two rooms that are large enough for humans to be in are connected by a passage too tight for a human, but say you can shine a light through, or can make a “voice connection” and hear people at the other end? Is that still part of the cave? As an aside, humans have mapped over 190 miles of Jewel Cave (and more all the time, big shout out to my friends who are mapping it!) But airflow studies estimate that we’ve only mapped about 3-5% of it. Let that sink in. But, what if the other 95% is too small for a human to fit in. I don’t think anyone would not call that part of the cave.

But here’s the real question. So we’ve mapped the cave. We know where the passages (i.e. lack of rock) are.  We find a plug of mud and remove that.  We’ve made more cave! Yeah! But what if we remove ALL the rock around the existing passage. When does the cave disappear? I mean now we just have a lot more “absence of rock”.  But I think we’d agree at some point we no longer have a cave!

So back to Swiss cheese.  One of the distinguishing details of such cheese are the holes, or more properly named the eyes. Did you know there’s actual Federal guidelines on what can be called Swiss cheese. Ayup, you can’t simply have a cheese with eyes in it. So I guess Swiss cheese is sort of like a cave. We actually have to think about it to give it some definition we can agree on.  Take away all the cheese, eyes and all, and you have no more cheese and I’m quite sad.

But what about accidents? Well, there’s a model of risk analysis called the Swiss cheese model. Basically, very few accidents occur out of the blue or entirely without a relation to other factors. The idea is you have multiple slices of Swiss cheese and all the holes have to line up for the accident to occur. For example, in my own personal experience, years ago I came close to all the “pieces” of the cheese lining up; while driving through New Jersey, I came fairly close to hydroplaning off an exit ramp into the woods.  Let’s look at some of the slices of cheese that came into play.

  • I was tired. Had I been more awake I’d have been paying a bit more attention.
  • It was dark. I might have noticed exactly how wet the exit ramp was during daylight.
  • I was travelling too fast.
  • I had nearly missed the ramp, I might have been travelling slower (see above) had I noticed the ramp sooner.

The instant I hit the ramp, I knew I was in trouble. I think the ONE slice that didn’t line up was, experience. Had I been 20 years younger with less experience driving, I suspect I’d have ended up off the road. I was at the very edge of being able to brake and maneuver and I called upon all my years of experience to stay on the correct side of that edge. One thin slice of “cheese” saved me that night.

When one looks through accident reports, of almost any industry or activity, one can start to look for where the slices lined up and how any one could be changed. One reason I read the American Cave Accidents report when I receive it is to learn where the slices could have been moved so I can make sure I don’t line up my slices of cheese.

So, the question for you is where do your slices of cheese line up?

And other question is, what sort of cheese do you put on YOUR roast beef sandwich? And do you make sure your Swiss cheese eyes don’t line up so every bite is ensured a bit of cheese?

 

 

 

 

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