Adventures in Risk and Safety, King Zero and a more complete outlook on what it is to be human

Guest post by one of the USA based students in The Centre for Leadership and Learning in Risk (CLLR) online program


Does everyone around me really believe this? Am I the only one who questions these statements? How does any of this make sense?

These questions, and many more, have bounced around my head many times throughout my life in school, church and work. I have always naturally questioned things, especially those presented as “absolutes”. So when I hear or read something that doesn’t feel right, even if an authority figure makes it clear “this is the way it is”, I trust my gut and investigate further. I need to know.

I won’t go into too many details about how I got into safety, but about 10 years ago I was working at an oil and petroleum lab. It was here that my journey into the world of health and safety would begin. I started in an admin role for the lab when a safety coordinator position at the corporate office became available. I knew very little about occupational health and safety, but I had a Bachelor’s degree and I interviewed well. A few hours after the interview, I got an offer for the job. I accepted and just like that, I was now getting paid to help keep people safe.

One of the first things I had to do in my new role was attend executive safety meetings with the corporate higher-ups. It did not take long for my habit for questioning to crop up. The very first safety meeting I attended I remember wondering “Why does it seem like they always seek to place the blame for an accident on the person who was hurt? Also, why are they saying or implying these employees were “choosing” to be unsafe and get hurt?” It did not make sense to me, but there was no way I was going to raise my hand and question their wisdom at that stage. I just accepted it at the time.

But those questions did not just go away; I stored them in the back of my mind to be examined at a later date, when I became better informed and understood this job more.

I saw the mantra of “Zero Harm” everywhere. It struck me as a great thing to strive for, but was not realistic. But what do I know? I am new to safety and some of the world’s largest and most powerful companies have adopted this as their mantra, so I really should find a way to incorporate this into my vernacular. After all, they have all these safety numbers to show that “Zero harm” has helped drive down injuries and improve safety culture. Surely there is something to this. I presume we only lacked the right system and culture to make zero a reality. Besides, no one really thinks zero incidents is possible. It is just a word they use. Kind of like “Keep reaching for the stars”.

But stored in the back of my mind were those old, nagging questions about safety. In fact, the more I got exposed to absolutist language in these safety meetings, the more questions I was having. Plus I was always hearing from the guys in the field something like this “One of the biggest safety issues we have IS safety”. I kind of blew that off as just disgruntled employees who never got over the fact they did not make it past high school football and into college and the NFL. To be frank, I discounted them in part because I thought they were just “dumb”. After all, those were some of the words and the attitude regarding our field employees coming from our corporate safety meetings every month and these folks were trained experts in what it took to keep people safe.

In my searching for a system or program that would help improve our safety performance, I read a book called “Safety 24/7: Building an Incident Free Culture” “Well” I thought, “this sounds good. Just practice safety every waking minute of every day and when you get to work you just continue that mind-set.” This would surely help us control our injuries and maybe even get us to be incident free.

I adopted ‘Safety 24/7” as the title of my company newsletter and had it on the signature of all of my emails. To get near miss reporting to increase I gave awards and recognition for people who reported the most. Of course, increasing near miss reporting stems from the theory that if your employees are aware of the near misses and the minor injuries, they will behave in a safer manner and make the conscious decision to not make the same mistake. You can literally control the outcomes of safety performance IF the employees comply with the program and IF they actually care enough to choose safety. That sounded simple and straight forward to me so that is the direction we went for a couple of years.

I had what I considered success at that company but I found another opportunity elsewhere that allowed me to focus much more on being in the field, doing audits, training and making contact with our customers or prospective customers. One of the first things I sought to do was to implement my “24/7 Safety Culture” program. One of the mantras I adopted was “Safety is NOT a priority, it is a value. Priorities change. Values do not” This was a strong line that usually garnered a lot of attention, especially when you start with “Safety is NOT a priority…” That always got the audience to perk up.

One day, the gentlemen tasked with helping me with my on boarding process asked me a simple question “What does that mean though. What is a value? Can you define it?”

So I did what any aspiring safety person does when asked a question you don’t have a good answer to; I thought of some B.S. answer as a placeholder so I could escape to my computer and begin Googling terms like “safety culture”. I would have an answer to his question before long.

Somehow one of the search terms I used brought up a blog post that would be the introduction and impetus to a new outlook for my philosophy on occupational safety and, more importantly, on living. It was written by some guy named Dr. Rob Long and was entitled “Is Safety a Choice You Make?” I still have it (and most of his writings) saved on my “Safety Flash drive”.

The title hit me square in the forehead. “Wow!” I thought, “What safety person in their right mind would ever openly question that? I have wondered the same thing for years, but have never seen anyone dispute it as anything but fact.” The more I read, a sense of joy and relief hit me as I had finally found someone with credibility and a platform that was writing what I and others have thought, but no one dared to say aloud.

For me, Dr. Long was like the child in the fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. If you aren’t familiar with it, it is a short tale about two weavers who promise an emperor a new suit of clothes that they say are invisible to those who are unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent. However in reality, they make no clothes at all, making everyone believe the clothes are invisible to them. When the emperor parades before his subjects in his new “clothes”, no one dares to say that they do not see any suit of clothes on him for fear that they will be seen as stupid. Finally, a child cries out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!” That is the voice of Dr. Long and playing the role of the Emperor is the Behavior Based, Zero Harm health and safety industry.

As I stated earlier, I have saved, read, and shared virtually all of Dr. Long’s articles that I come across. The message from 2 of his videos (“iCue” and “Zero Harm – The Maintenance of a Dangerous Idea”) so captivated me that I watched it multiple times, putting it on pause to type his every word, so I could literally have access to his concepts and use them to promote what I felt like was a better way to live. To be VERY CLEAR, I would never take credit for his work and pass it off as mine; I only use it as a guide. I ALWAYS reference him by name because when I use his concepts because 1) it is the right thing to do and 2) it gives me a chance to expose others to his work and maybe send them down the same path I continue to travel.

When I saw a mention on his blog in late 2017 that there would be online course work available, I was floored. What an opportunity to study directly with this man who has a gift for articulating why so many things that are presumed to be “facts” in safety just don’t make sense or are just wrong. More importantly, the learnings from Dr. Long provide a guide to a better understanding of what it really means to be human and how amazing the mind is.

If you noticed, I haven’t focused much on “reducing injuries” or “improving safety performance” in my reflection. That is because I have no doubt that the concepts I am learning with Dr. Long, like understanding how people make sense of things, how they make decisions and why everything has meaning, will result in a more mature culture at work and help people have a better chance of getting home safe. The principles in this course are about humans and human interaction. And the most important people in our lives, our families, stand to benefit from this knowledge and understanding just as much, or more, as our co-workers.

During my studies Dr. Long, Rob Sams and my mentor Hayden Collins really drove home the following point; it’s not about “Is this system/program/style good or bad?” The question being asked should be “Where is that system/program/style taking us? What is its trajectory?” Make no mistake, Dr. Long is not saying that systems or checklists are bad. Analysis can have tremendous value.

If I am asked if I think an organization’s program or system was “good”, I could not really give a simple answer. What I would say is this; get a healthy dose of dissenting opinions or viewpoints. Dr.Long’s Social Psychology of Risk (SPoR) is relatively new and looks at the world of risk unlike anyone else. At the very least, learning the fundamentals of SPoR will help anyone gain a better understanding of human behavior. It will help clarify why we make some judgements and decisions that otherwise will not make sense using the same old common, accepted methods of investigation and inquiry in the safety industry.

Here is where you can feel free to dip you toe in the SPoR waters and not have to worry; you are free to use and share as much or as little of what you learn. At the very least, you can say you have looked at a very different approach to risk. You will also have a more informed outlook at the trajectory that a culture that values counting LTIs or behaviors will go.

There are vast areas of the mind that dictate human behavior and decision-making that are not understood and, as a result, not even considered by the risk and safety industry today. Dr. Long’s course work will open that world up and allow anyone bold enough to enter to experience an entirely new way to help keep people safe and do some good. For me, it has altered not only my outlook on risk and safety but on living.

The Centre for Leadership and Learning in Risk (CLLR) have launched Online studies for non-Australian students for 2018

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