In the midst of the busyness of work and life there is much to be said for the value of volunteering. Volunteering is a great way to learn about following and serving and especially helpful for executives who become absorbed in an alternate reality that says the stock market, KPIs and triple bottom lines define reality. For safety people who think that risk is best defined by working in the field on a gas line, conveyor belt, decline or scaffold, volunteering could be a sobering experience. Whilst not diminishing the risks associated with heavy machinery, heights and moving parts, none of these objects in themselves make decisions. If you want to learn about risk, you must engage with people, observe, listen and follow. If you want to learn about risk engage with another workplace or activity and see how others engage with risk. If a manager wants to be a leader then the best pathway is to learn to be ‘present’ with and ‘meet’ others. If safety wants to learn about safety, don’t stay stuck in the narrow confines of safety thinking and practice.
Whenever I am home in Canberra I do some volunteering for two agencies, one provides mental health services to the region (over 500,000 people) and the other provides welfare support to families in crisis. Sometimes I think the predictability of risks in heavy industry are a cake walk when compared to the volatility, unpredictability and violence of human services. In the human services sector everything seems to be a ‘wicked problem’. In human services there are no easy solutions, no ‘fixes’ and no podium to stand over others in superiority. When we volunteer in this sector we learn to see ourselves in the suffering and circumstance of others. There is no truer saying than: ‘there but for the grace of god go I’. One of the most annoying by-products about safety perfectionism and binary absolutes is the creation of superiority that understands everyone else as stupid. Safety hindsight bias only seems to remember our successes and others mistakes. In my brother’s work in Kings Cross he holds several funerals each week. Whilst zero is counting paper cuts and band aids, those who work in mental health services know about the risk of death, co-morbidity and by-products. Of course zero doesn’t count mental health as harm, how convenient.
One of the programs the mental health service provides is a ‘Hearing Voices Group’. In a Hearing Voices Group people get together, share and support each other. This is what the ‘thinking groups’ do that Rob Sams, Hayden Collins and Gabrielle Carlton run. The power of ‘practicing presence’, ‘meeting’ rather than ‘fixing’ others and listening, is greatly needed in the safety sector.
The purpose of the Hearing Voices Group is to provide safety, acceptance and non-judgmental support. Learning to live with the voices provides some control and gives power back to the individual in decision making. One of the major problems with people with mental health issues is stigma, if they tell someone they hear voices they know they will be branded as weird, marginalized and a ‘mental’ case. The Hearing Voices Group helps de-stigmatise people and humanize them. I think in many ways safety people too hear voices or, give voice to perspectives that are unhelpful. Unfortunately, the word ‘safety’ now creates a stigma, it is used for every political and compliance excuse. I think we should be talking less about safety and more about people and risk.
In human services there is no room for absolutes, no room for superiority and no place for intolerance, despite the risks. Everyone in the sector knows such attitudes don’t work indeed absolutes and perfectionism make everything worse. One of my other voluntary activities is to chair a regional committee (with senior counsel, magistrates and judiciary) that audits the ethical practice of human services. There is no place for absolutes in this space either, every conundrum and variation makes every case different, things are situational. Humans have a wonderful art of not being predictable and when many situations are unique, people are confronted by many tough decisions. Mate’s book ‘In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts’ is a sobering read for those who want to learn about risk in the human services sector.
Another program is Partners in Recovery, this is where people support others to develop ownership for their own risks. Unless people develop their own strategies for managing risks, there will be no recovery for those suffering a mental illness. The disposition of controlling, patronizing and telling others has no place in human services. This is why volunteering would be good for safety people. Volunteering teaches not to control, tell or patronize others, important skills for every safety person.
It is relatively easy to volunteer in the human services, the sector is screaming out for people, support and understanding. Volunteering in the human services not really about what can be given to the sector but rather what safety people will learn and transmogrify into more effective enactment of safety in the workplace.