Don’t Hold the Hand Rail

imageI normally hold handrails, but not anymore. I normally touch things like touch screens but not anymore, I am now hyper aware of all that I touch. The Coronavirus has changed this and has amplified our awareness of all we touch and of hygiene. Strangely, the very people most susceptible to falling over down stairs are the same people most likely to die of Covid-19!

Safety has always been about trade-offs and by-products. Safety has always been about the less and more in outcomes. Safety has always been about adaptability in the face of vulnerability, that’s the nature of ALARP ( ). Any organisation that has a mantra of zero demonstrates clearly that they don’t understand the WHS Act and Regulation. Safety has never been about zero and can’t be

One thing that Covid-19 brings to the fore in our thinking is human fallibility. We see just how much people fear loss of control and power in the symbolism of hoarding toilet paper ( ). Nothing projects fallibility awareness like the need to go to the toilet. There’s nothing quite like bodily functions to dispel any delusions of infallibility. Yet in safety, the delusions of zero are everywhere. Zero is the symbol of this industry’s immaturity. Safety simply doesn’t know what to do about fallibility so it fixates in denial.

There’s nothing quite like a virus to level any sense of immunity. I wrote about this at the start of my recent book (for free download) Fallibility and Risk, Living With Uncertainty ( ). If you believe human beings are fallible then there can be no mantra of zero!

I remember standing in front of Notke’s Dance of Death in St Nicholas Church in Tallinn Estonia ( ) and being stunned by its simple and clear message. There is no immunity from fallibility!

Notke’s Dance of Death sits on a stand and is three meters wide but once measured 15 metres. The painting depicts the nature of a Pandemic and has Death as a skeleton with sickle placed between each person: Pope, King, Queen, priest, joker, nobleman and Everyman. Death is no respecter of persons. The sun rises on the just and unjust, the same rain falls on all of us (Matthew 545). A virus doesn’t differentiate on class and occupation. You would think this might drive a society that holds to the common good, the run on toilet paper demonstrates the opposite.

As public events and institutions shut down to manage this virus there is a whole different focus on safety. And as disinformation spreads like a virus on commercial TV I also chat to people who don’t understand what this is all about. If ever we needs a sense of Real Risk ( ) is now. The health system at the moment is already under acute stress without any exponential growth occurring.

I watched for 20 minutes or so at the airport yesterday, I think my final trip for a long time and, no one was touching handrails, no one was shaking hands and the airport was nearly empty. There were cleaners diligently disinfecting surfaces and my taxi driver disinfected the car door for me so I could touch it! I did see a few people bow to each other as is common in SE Asia.

So we are quickly developing a whole new collection of safety habits because we know we are vulnerable and fallible. How dumb does zero look!

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

8 Replies to “Don’t Hold the Hand Rail”

  1. I often wonder if the ideology of zero pervasive as it is in today’s society has set us up to expect that everyone can and expects to survive this pandemic? Zero sets the expectation of perfection where nobody gets hurt or dies maybe zero might have contributed to modern society being intolerant of compromise

    1. Jason, I think you are right. The constant talk of zero by Safety creates many hidden by-products and unconscious affects that will only be realized in some time ahead, years or more. The toxicity of zero is just like a virus, it incubates over time and like DuPont creates the opposite of what that organisation has been preaching in delusion for 40 years.

  2. Three of my sixteen years in the Army were as a Recruit Insutructor in Wagga Wagga (97 – 99). One the ‘Drill’ requirements we taught Recruits was when moving up and down stairs, they were not allowed to touch the handrails, they had to lock their arms into their side (as though they they were walking at attention)…looked like robots to be blunt. There was no rationale about why we taught them this, it was simply custom and tradiiton passed down over the years…a silly one at that…but that was the Army and it’s what I was taught as a Recruit. In time, I realised the nonsene of the idea and instructed the Recruits to hold the handrail, as I preceived they may fall and given they moved on mass as a Platooon, a fall would have been all consuming. The brainwashing of Recruits in this regard seems like Zero from the Blue Chip companies, no real rationale, no real science behind it…just nonsense.

    1. Keith, a symbol and a myth are the same thing and they develop and are believed with the same power and have the same influence. Once a myth is believed it is made real even if it is not, it is real for the people who believe it, even when they don’t know why. The myth of zero is believed because the myth of injury rates is made the definition of safety. The myth of zero serves as a symbol for a cult that thinks a number defines safety and all else that follows must conform to its binary logic. It’s no different than many superstitions that people attribute meaning to that have no meaning and then they go ahead and wear the symbol anyway. All traditions are such symbols.
      I spoke to someone yesterday who still believed DuPont are a safety company, he also believed in fairies.

  3. Herman Wouk spoke volumes about the oxymoron of military intelligence in The Caine Mutiny with his description of the US Navy:

    “If you are not an idiot but find yourself in the Navy, you can only operate well by pretending to be one”

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