Helping People Learn Safety

Helping People Learn Safety

Guest post by Dr Rob Long from

The first thing we need to observe is embedded in the title, this article is not learning ‘about’ safety, learning ‘about’ safety is just data and information, ‘learning safety’ is real learning, when safety is owned and change results. Argyris and Schon (1974 Theory in practice: Increasing Professional Effectiveness) called this ‘double loop learning’. Everything else is just training or indoctrination, what they called ‘single loop’ learning. Learning ‘about’ safety is like learning ‘about’ anything, information is not education.

There is a strange mythology out there that ‘telling’ is the primary methodology for learning and we know this is not true. People sit through endless telling processes like inductions and ‘white cards’ and learn so little safety. People have no amount of safety ‘preached’ at them but soon observe that the preaching doesn’t match the modelling and so they learn that the telling is meaningless. This is called ‘Double Speak’ and is far more powerful than telling, this is because educators know that the congruence or incongruence of the ‘hidden curriculum’ (method of telling) overrides the content of the telling. Hitting people so they won’t hit others comes to mind as an example of Double Speak and the hidden curriculum, a parent swearing at a child not to swear etc, you get the idea.

The mythology of telling-as-learning seems to have people convinced that a data dump is how people ‘learn safety’. Then when people don’t learn safety they don’t question the validity of the telling model, they presume people didn’t learn because they have a hearing problem. So, they will learn safety next time if someone yells it. Then when safety remains unlearned it must be because the other person is ‘stupid’, it couldn’t possibly be because the methodology of ‘telling’ is mythology.

Safety people proclaim the need for ‘safety ownership’, rant and rave about people needing ‘common sense’ and despair of the repetitive nature of their job yet, have little expertise in learning and confuse indoctrination and training with learning. It’s the Fodor Paradox, the beginning of learning comes from knowing what you don’t know. So we don’t know about medicine and trust a doctor, we don’t know about flying so we trust a pilot but, when it comes to learning we know what we know.

One of the unfortunate characteristics of safety education is that people don’t learn about education and learning. A safety diploma or degree trains people to think that safety is all about a regulation and a data ‘dump’ and then when the safety person gets out on the job discovers it’s all about people. Most safety people tell me they wish they had learned about learning, motivation, perception, influence, knowledge development and inspiration in their safety training because, they discover pretty quickly when they get into the workplace that telling people about regulation doesn’t create safety.

Humans learn in many ways, a study of early childhood is a good place to start in learning about learning. One of the most powerful ways to learn is by experience. Even our experiences in the womb teach us about our mother and from the second we get out of the womb, without any form of language to be ‘told’ we discover by putting things in our mouth or touching with our hands. We hear and listen, see and observe and our brain and mind processes these as we experiment in trial and error, imitation and copy. It is through these observations that we create attributions, attachment and heuristics. We learn who loves us because we feel it, and yet have no comprehension of language for at least a few years. We observe modelling about us and copy more the modelling rather than what the model tells us. We often learn best by playing around (trial and error) with things without being ‘told’. It won’t be till we are in mid childhood that we will learn how abstract ideas have meaning. Many of these abilities to learn are carried genetically, it is in both nature and nurture that we learn. As we engage in relationships with others we learn through that relationship and by community belonging, without being ‘told’ anything. Most things we learn are ‘caught not taught’ is the old saying, what this means is, we learn mostly though the ‘hidden curriculum’ not the overt curriculum. The power of the hidden curriculum in learning is so strongly demonstrated by Freire, Holt, Dewey, R. S. Peters, Goodman, Postman and McLaren. Sadly, these are not on the reading list for safety people.

We learn best throughout our lives (not just in childhood) by discovery, observation, experience, creation, modelling, imitation, feeling, relationships, community and play (trial and error). These are the best methods to help people learn safety.

Those who confuse indoctrination with learning use the ‘tabula rasa’ (empty vessel) argument of John Locke from the 17th century to demonstrate their behaviourist anthropology. A quick look at Bloom’s Taxonomy ( demonstrates that humans mostly learn without being told. For example, you can give a receptacle to a Kalahari bushman and he will quickly look at it and discover he can fill it, hit with it, learn its properties and use it and it doesn’t matter what he calls it, it doesn’t matter what its called. You can tell a Kalahari bushman ‘about’ a bottle but this is not learning. The bushman will quickly learn the value of the bottle or indeed, if the bottle threatens the fundamentals of their culture. People learn about culture through belonging, feeling and social absorption.

The idea that humans are somehow something like a computer is an unhelpful way of understanding educational anthropology. The fallibility of being human and the power of unconscious learning are so important to understanding how people learn and make decisions. The behaviourist mindset that dominates the safety industry is partly responsible for the industries inability to learn. Training is not learning, data is not learning, information is not learning. The idea that a human is the sum of inputs and outputs is the absurd assumption of a behaviourist worldview. At the heart of ‘learning safety’ is the nature of belief and values, machines can’t have belief and values. Learning invokes belief and there can be no belief without consciousness and unconsciousness. Machines can’t learn unconsciously through feeling but humans do. Humans are not machines and treating humans as machines is a dehumanizing process. Try responding to someone with a mental health condition as if humans are machines. Just give a person with depression, the right data and bingo, all will be well. Just tell someone with a disorder, not to be anxious and bingo, all will be well. Just tell someone who has not learned safety ‘be safe’ and bingo, they will be safe. How absurd, the truth is, many people are trained ‘about’ safety but don’t know safety.

So, next time you despair about inductions that waste time or the lack of safety ownership and learning on site, maybe its time to ditch the old mythology and learn something about learning.

If you are interested in the Human Dymensions two day program Learning Safety, please contact

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.

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