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.
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.