A sequel to: I’m just not that into safety anymore
Our most popular article this year! Why do you think that is? Rob’s courage and honesty has certainly touched some nerves! I’m just not that into safety anymore I have spoken with a number of Managers over the past few months who have argued with me that ‘safety’ in our workplaces means that we must do everything we ……Enjoy the rest of the article >>>>>
I’m Still Not That Into Safety
When I first declared that ‘I’m just not that into safety anymore’ over 12 months ago, it was at a time when a number of people who work in risk and safety were expressing their frustration of an industry that had become known as the ‘fun police’ and focused more on monitoring rules than supporting people to discern and deal with risk and uncertainty.
The topic was raised again this week as I was talking with a friend who is looking at formal qualifications to help them progress their career in safety. If you’ve read the above piece, you may understand how I wanted to respond to this, but I stopped and reflected before I did. More on this below.
I continue to observe an industry that seems fixated on fixing, dedicated to finding ‘solutions’ for even the most complex of problems and that is addicted to perfectionism. There seems little room for ‘errors’, and when there are ‘errors’, we must get to the bottom of them, find a root cause and make sure the same ‘error’ can never happen again. This is the language often used in risk and safety.
I can understand this, as when we think of the opposite of these things, the argument is that we have no control, we would feel comfortable with mistakes and errors and we’d move on after an incident even if we don’t really understand what went on. For most of us, thinking in this way about risk and safety might be akin to that horrible dream (or was it a nightmare?) we might have as a child of going to school naked (or was that just me?). My point is, I understand that through our social conditioning that it has become the norm in risk and safety to think in a binary way where things are ‘safe or unsafe’, ‘good or bad’ and ‘right or wrong’.
My question is, do we have to look at things in this black and white way? Or, would we be better placed to be more critical in our thinking in risk and safety? Do we need to challenge ourselves to better understand the paradoxical nature of dealing with risk? Could it be that while we want to focus on ‘safety’ and preventing harm that this very focus may actually cause harm and illness? When we understand paradox, could this better position us to tackle risk?
For example, could it be that it’s ok to say that we don’t want anyone to get hurt, but at the same time we don’t want to control people to the point where this causes them to feel anxious through of a loss of ‘freedom’? I wonder if it would help if we explored this idea of paradox a little further in the context of risk and safety?
A good example might be what we know from our studies of motivation (see for example Deci). That is, that we are best motivated when we have choice to make our own decisions and not forced to fit within the confines of a program designed to ‘accommodate humans’. Yet, ‘safety’ and modern day corporations seem intent on working against this at every opportunity. Maybe it would be helpful for us to consider the ‘paradox of choice’. Is there something we can we learn from Psychologist Barry Schwartz who, in his book also titled The Paradox of Choice notes (p.10):
On the other hand, the fact that some choice is good doesn’t necessarily mean that more choice is better. As I will demonstrate, there is a cost to having an overload of choice. As a culture, we are enamored of freedom, self-determination, and variety, and we are reluctant to give up any of our options. But clinging tenaciously to all the choices available to us contributes to bad decisions, to anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction—even to clinical depression.
So ‘choice’ can be both good and bad for us……. Talk about a contradictory statement that is bound to confuse some, but energise others. When we are left with more questions than answers and ‘solutions’ how do we deal with that in risk and safety?
I’m not sure what my friend will decide to do in relation to their course. In response to their question, I simply asked what they felt someone working in safety should focus on, and whether the learning outcomes of the programs they were looking at were aligned to this.
In safety courses, there seems little or no mention of the role of hubris in dealing with risk, of learning, of managing the unexpected, no understanding of motivation and the role of ‘truth’, ‘value’ and ‘control’ (Higgins) and certainly no argument that risk makes sense. Instead risk is seen as evil and it must be eliminated and certainly not something that must exist in order to learn.
When I think back to my original degree in health and safety, I recall 6 key text books, and I still have them. I took a quick tour through the indexes of these books recently and I see lots of mention of law, engineering, law, chemistry, law, physics, law, systems and law. There are a few tokenistic chapters on ‘people’ which are usually headed ‘human error’ and refer mainly to how to ‘fit the human to the system’ rather than making a genuine attempt to understand how people make decisions and judgments about risk. I’ve seen nothing yet in ‘traditional safety books’ on understanding human fallibility.
Fast forward to my current ‘learning adventure’ and the count is over 220 books, and my focus is on understanding their key thesis (I didn’t even need to know what this meant when I did my undergraduate degree) and trying to work out how that works with my current knowledge. In other words, a lot more critical thinking and exploring rather than focusing on answers and solutions.
I’m also beginning to understand ‘paradox’ and the prevalence of black and white (binary) thinking that dominates our world of risk and safety. For so long my focus too was on ‘solutions’,’ fixes’ and ‘control’. In fact, when I first started consulting in health and safety the word ‘solutions’ was in my business name. Today, I’m much more content with questions rather than answers.
For example, I’m currently reading and researching for an essay which is titled ‘anxiety and depression, what do we do about it?’. I know that only a few years ago, I would have looked at this question in a very different way that probably would have taken me down the path of thinking about how to improve EAP programs or about how to eliminate the causes of anxiety and depression.
Today, I recognise that such a problem is a ‘wicked problem’. That is, one that cannot be ‘fixed’ or ‘eliminated’, instead only ‘tackled’. How many other ‘wicked problems’ do we have in health and safety and how does our current approach align with ‘tacking’ rather than ‘fixing’?
Another change that I’ve noticed in myself is that I now get together for ‘social thinking’ with friends to talk about, explore and better understand problems and ideas, an approach that is not at all worried about solutions. Sure we try to work things out, but equally we are perfectly happy to leave with more questions than answers.
If you’d like to explore the idea of ‘social thinking’ (watch this space, more information on this coming soon) you can check out this website on ‘collective thinking’. The site includes some ‘nuggets of gold’ for how to think about tackling wicked problems and the power of working ‘collectively’ to better understand a problem rather than working in isolation and focusing on solutions as we often do in risk and safety.
When we come to understand that mistakes, like incidents/events, may happen for a range of reasons that are difficult to understand and perhaps some are not explainable, perhaps that is a sign we are maturing in risk and safety. What do you understand of the paradoxical nature of health and safety?
As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences and comments.
Author: Robert Sams
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