Deconstructing Safety and Humans
Another article by Dr Rob Long – only for the thinking Safety Professional!
For some reason people in the safety business seem to love reducing things to the most simple (and sometimes simplistic) understanding of things. It seems like the very idea of human complexity and uncertainty is something to fear. Maybe it’s the fact that the safety sector is dominated by safety engineers who love to measure and quantify everything. The attraction to behaviourist safety also appeals as it promises predictability and controllability of humans.
I observe with interest the numerous debates about percentages of difference between unsafe acts and unsafe conditions. I read with fascination extensive sematic gymnastics to try and juggle the idea of zero with human fallibility, absolutes and perfectionism in goals. I see the constant rehash of Heinrich’s pyramid as if it somehow validates human behaviour and decision making, causality and understanding of risk. All of this ‘noise’ in reductionism and deconstructionism projects the idea that understanding humans is both certain, easily understood and controllable. So many organisations are stuck in Hudson’s ‘calculative’ organisation and either love it or don’t know how to escape from it.
What is most mystifying about all this energy devoted to simplistic reductionism is that many who expound the theories of control and deconstruction have no knowledge, experience or expertise in any genre of psychology.
I was speaking today to a geologist who had just participated in the MiProfile survey. We sat for several hours as he struggled to understand why I was concerned with ‘implicit’ knowledge, heuristics, contradiction, learning, risk, attribution etc. He struggled with the idea of subjectivity as he believed science was objective and that objective knowledge was knowable. As far as he was concerned human behaviour was knowable, understandable, measureable and controllable. I disagreed with him on all four and said that I wished it was that easy. I asked if he had children, unfortunately no. Anyone who is a parent of a teenager will quickly dispose of any idea of understandability and controllability.
Why all this passion for fundamentalist-like control, to have things so black and white? Why must everything in risk and safety have a percentage, a measure or some documented indicator? Why is it that we can’t even have a conversation about risk that must be recorded? Yet, in important matters of life such as love, learning and relationships we know that any talk of measures, quantity or ‘scores’, kills the very dynamic of love and relationships. Try to answer the question, ‘how much do you love me?’ and see how you go.
I am working with an organisation at the moment that are seeking to give up their AS/NZS ISO 4801 accreditation. They believe it not only doesn’t form a defence in court but creates a calculative mindset that inhibits safety culture. How courageous, I hope they go through with it. Check out Burton’s book, On Being Certain: Believing you are right, even when you’re not, it’s worth the read.