Confirmity in Conformity
Safety is the industry of conformity. This is despite the fact that many of the things people believe they must conform with are mythical.
In the very brief history of safety we now have the situation where the dominant Safety worldview is mechanistic, focused on – safety as harm from objects and risk aversion. This is best captured in the belief that safety is all about ‘damaging energies’. Somehow an object has an energy of its own, just waiting for a human to release it? The focus remains on the potential of the object not the social arrangements of humans. The best way to deal with dropped objects is to have a dropped objects calculator???
The winter in Canberra this year is running late, normally by late April the nights get down to 1 or 2 Celsius and the days struggle to get above 15. One of the winter tasks is to chop starting wood for the fire, clean out the fireplace and chimney and organize everything ready for the bitter cold. Splitting wood with an axe, blockbuster and tomahawk is risky. The implement has to be sharpened and then its use requires accuracy and skill, something that diminishes with older age. Unfortunately, wearing gloves with chopping takes away the sensitivity for ‘feeling’ what one is doing, it actually makes it less safe. Maybe that’s why professional woodchoppers don’t wear steelcap boots and gloves? (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uwcFng9wfDs; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZ5v6OZgCbU) So, this year I nearly had everything done when I nicked my finger with the tomahawk, oh my goodness I got a cut. I must be stupid. All accidents are preventable. I must find a cause, because a cause means something or someone to blame and blame is the name of the safety game. I know, the problem was the tomahawk design, the temperature of the handle, the shape of the blade, the ‘energy’ of the implement, the time of the day, the location, my technique in chopping, not wearing gloves, the way I held the wood. Maybe I should have sat down for 4 hours and pondered all the reasons for blame and punish myself? So, I recorded the injury and wrote out a report and will see if I can reduce finger cuts over the next 5 years and see if that frequency rate will make a safer chopping process. I will record that finger cut along with my wife’s finger cut in cooking preparation two months ago, and my finger cut in pruning the grape vine in our household risk register, that will make it all better. I got a band-aid and finished off the job.
Here’s a quote from the latest book due out in July, Greg Smith comments:
‘GREG: And it seems to me to be such a problem we have in, in safety that we are so focused on minor, trivial things from a legal perspective, they don’t create legal liability, someone cuts their finger, doesn’t create legal liability. The courts accept that this just happens in the normal course of a life. You’re not going to be prosecuted; you’re not going to be sued, because someone’s cuts their finger. You blow up an oil rig and you pollute the place with oil and you destroy peoples livelihoods and kill tens of people in your business, yes the courts are going to take a different perspective on that.
And I just find it quite extraordinary; and not just from a legal perspective, my concern from a safety perspective, and I see this all the time – I’d be interested in your views on this Rob … is that the workforce, and not even the workforce, members of the public who I have to speak to socially, think that safety is an utter nonsense because of our focus on the trivial.
ROB: I love ALARP because it endorses for me the human and subjective side of managing risk. I see in industry, this constant need to mechanise, control, shut down and objectify risk. I come into organisations, and I was in one not long ago, where they had fifty thousand objects registered on their hazard register and they showed this to me proudly and here was their evidence that they we’re managing risk. Bang, have a look at this. I was just flabbergasted, it’s not objective and you’re trying to concretise, metricise something which the Act and the Regulation does not.’
It’s just like Due Diligence, it is subjective. Now if you can get over that, you won’t start setting silly goals, like ‘all accidents are preventable’, and ‘zero’, and all kind of silly language, that goes with it. You will realise that risk is managed within a context, by human beings, who do the best they can.
Unfortunately, this is not how Safety works. Confirmation bias is alive and well in safety (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias). What confirmation bias does is help solidify ‘myths as fact’ in safety. Regardless of what the courts say and the Regulation says, safety must have zero when ALARP is a denial of zero. The more people conform to the myth, the more an object-centred approach to risk is confirmed. see Snap, Crackle, Pop. That’s the Sound we Love to Hear
Like I say in the book:
‘ROB: The court then tells you that number (LTI, FRMTI) is absolutely meaningless but industry continues to culturally attribute value to it. And so it’sad and a bit like a ‘cargo cult’. The coke bottle falls out of the sky and it’s a god, it’s exactly the same. You know, here we’ve got these matrices, or these numbers, or these pyramids and curves, we attribute value to them, the court tells us they’re of no value and we still hang onto the coke bottle and worship the damn thing’.
Any examination of the WHS curriculum further shows just how this cargo cult is maintained. The curriculum is founded on a focus on object not subjects. The safety curriculum is all about systems, mechanics, engineering, legalism and objects and so little is committed to people, communication, listening, conversations and all that is human about risk. The WHS curriculum just confirms the mechanistic worldview and so makes it easy to conform to the new normal. Confirmation in conformation.