Evidence, Proof and Paperwork in Safety
I was with a client yesterday and all the nonsense safety mythology surfaced the moment I suggested that they not record certain acts and activities. The anxiety hit the roof, ‘but Rob how can we ‘prove’ we undertook the activity and how can we prove its effectiveness?’ Great question but the answer is not in more paperwork. Producing paperwork in itself is not evidence of more than the fact that you know how to complete paperwork, it is not evidence that the activity was either effective nor a reflection of the efficaciousness of the paper process itself. Indeed, more often than not, safety paperwork is used as evidence against you to demonstrate that you didn’t conform to your own systems.
3. PAPERWORK from Human Dymensions on Vimeo.
At the heart of safety mythology is the complete delusion about what comprises evidence and the nature of proof. I can produce my Marriage Certificate if you want and all it proves is that I was married on a certain day. It has no relevant information nor serves as evidence of the effectiveness or quality of the marriage. The paperwork provides no information other than the history of an event and certainly cannot be used as evidence of values, commitment or quality of what has occurred over the last 45 years. Similarly, trotting out the fact that I have been married for 45 years provides no information about the quality, learning, value or engagement of the marriage. Indeed, none of this is evidence or proof of a successful, effective or valuable marriage. It could just as easily be used as proof for the opposite!
You see what Safety doesn’t get is that paperwork is only evidence of itself not evidence of what it points to ((https://www.waylandlegal.com.au/blog/why-do-we-complete-checklists ). A simple session in historiography (or jurisprudence) would demonstrate the nature of evidence and the centrality of hermeneutics in the structure of interpretation and the onus of proof. Being Papersafe (https://www.amazon.com.au/Paper-Safe-triumph-bureaucracy-management-ebook/dp/B07HVRZY8C ) is not being safe.
To demonstrate the truth of being safe one needs to understand the nature of evidence and the onus of proof indeed, the nature of triangulation of evidence. None of this is studied in training on incident investigations or WHS training, hence the delusional mythology in the safety sector about incident investigations and reporting. In reality, if you ever have to prove the validity of an activity, the paperwork in itself won’t stack up, it has to be supported by first hand testimony and other forms of evidence. Indeed, if you don’t have any paperwork, you can easily demonstrate effectiveness without it.
In safety, the completion of documentation doesn’t mean one has done a risk assessment indeed, one can easily do a ‘tick and flick’ and have undertaken no risk assessment at all. Completion of ‘paper systems’ is not evidence of the effectiveness of a system. More so, it simply confirms the assumptions of the source who designed the system and most often the behaviourist-cognitivist assumptions of that documentation.
All systems contain design bias and conform to the bias of that document’s design. The less transdisciplinary the design of that documentation the more likelihood that the design will not help a group of people consider the diversity and breadth of risk associated with a task. Most often than not when someone gets to court they soon learn about the bias of that document’s design.
At the moment, the narrowness of training, document design and incident investigation mythology in the safety sector is extraordinary. There are so many blind spots, exemplified in the cognitivist-behaviourist assumptions of safety documentation, that one could hide an elephant in them.
What has actually happened in the safety sector over the last 20 years has been a longitudinal dumbing down of the sector into the delusional mythology that paperwork in itself is proof and evidence of effectiveness and validity. The reality is some of the best forms of evidence and proof are verbal, visual and observable as demonstrated through testimony.
In other words, activities like observations and conversations can best demonstrate the effectiveness of what documents point to. But the document in itself is not sufficient to demonstrate effectiveness. Similarly LTI and TRIFR data are no demonstration or evidence of safety effectiveness. At least the SWA got that one right (https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/system/files/documents/1703/issues-measurement-reporting-whs-performance.pdf). Unfortunately, this document doesn’t discuss the nature or onus of proof or the nature of evidence. Which means it also perpetuates the mythology of data as evidence. All data is interpreted and is not evidence in itself, this is the task of hermeneutics (interpretation). Of course, hermeneutics is not studied in WHS.
Yet, what persists and dominates the safety industry? The delusion that paperwork is evidence of safety. Indeed, further delusion assumes that the weight and volume of paperwork has meaning. And the evidence in the meeting I witnessed yesterday is that is the most absurd fear and anxiety accompanies this paperwork mythology. BTW, lead indicators in and of themselves are also not evidence of effectiveness or safety.
If ever there was need for reform in safety it is now but for god sake that reform isn’t going to come from orthodox safety, a peak body or a regulator. They all have far too much invested in the status quo. Indeed, the regulator perpetuates much of the mythology in the industry. My client yesterday told me all about the paperwork that was demanded by the regulator (and also the OFSC) and 70% of what was demanded was absolutely meaningless.
Rob Long says
John, absolutely spot on. This is the regulator. Based on phenomenal ignorance it continues to perpetuate this mythology and nothing changes. I work with many of my clients who are asked by the regulator to do the most absurd gymnastics about things that have nothing to do with tackling risk or effectively enacting safe systems of work. What they ask for is insane and only perpetuates the mythology of ‘paper systems’. In the end this is not actually about helping organisations keep people safe or tackle risk but about power over mythology and delusions about the purpose of regulation.
john worthington says
The work of the regulator in NSW with accident and incident investigations has sent the wrong message to business regarding workplace safety. Typically Workcover, as it was known, would arrive on-site and ask where is you “Safe System of Work”- the business would provide some form of documentation, risk assessment etc, Workcover would then reply “that’s not a safe system of work, someone got hurt” and then prosecute ” under failure to provide a safe system of work”. Easy path for Workcover, but at what cost?
Mistakenly the safety industry, took the message from the prosecutions that the paperwork was the issue on why people were getting hurt (the belief being, get the paperwork right (something you can hold) and you have a safe system of work), rather than the harder option of addressing what was actually happening “on the job” after the paperwork was completed. This message still prevails today, complete the Take 5, JSA, SWMs etc and you will be safe.
To really understand the hazards of a task does require experience, first hand knowledge, vision and understanding of how people see and respond to hazards, realisation that hazard controls will always introduce other hazards. Much harder than documenting paperwork from a distance for the task.
How many prosecutions in NSW over 20 odd years were conducted under any other provision? not many. Why , because failure to provide a safe system of work is easily to prosecute than other provisions. But what message was sent to industry?
Rob long says
Joe, yes there is much that could be done and excellent models of effective documentation that work but the regulator is not interested. They are a part of the problem.
Re effectiveness of SMS, the key is in the article.
Joe Aiken says
I’ve been concerned about the focus on documentation by legislators and regulators for a while.
Documentation will still be needed, but can you recommend any references which may help with techniques for assessing the real effectiveness of an SMS and enable the documentation to be optimised?
Rob Long says
Thanks Jason best wishes.
Very similar to my own thoughts Rob. I’ve rallied against status quo for years and finally started writing about it myself. If you have a chance I’d be honored if you checked out some of my articles on relentlesssafety.com. Your article was fantastic.
Rob long says
Dyno, this is the dynamic of dumb down safety. There is no connection between paperwork and effectiveness, it’s attributed. This is why the court functions on testimony as once source to determine if the paperwork was used effectively and, most times it is not.
Paperwork is more often than not symbolic mythology for an industry that is miseducated about risk.
Spot on Rob. I do alot of work at Tier 1 companies and they explicitly state that “This company runs on paperwork”. So I have asked the question “What does this paperwork demonstrate exactly? What assumptions are being made with the attribution to outcomes?” They typically have a blank stare as they think about the question then say something like “Well, if you read the pre-task hazard analysis, you can just tell who did a good one or not”. When asked how they can tell, the conversation usually begins to move elsewhere as there really is no answer. They can not demonstrate the claims that the numbers they cite really do say what they claim.