Imagination and Safety

Imagination? We’ll Soon Knock that Nonsense Out of You

UnsinkableA safety friend of mind Ted rang the other day, he had just gone through the circus and charade of an OFSC Audit and 4801 Audit. He said, ‘ah, now we are safe’, I said, ‘no your not, you are probably less safe’. (I’ll get back to this point shortly) The material his organisation produced to pass these audits exceeded 25 kilos of paper and folders, had consumed weeks of people’s time, had massively increased the cost of the building and was all about checking off compliance to a list. As he talked me through the many of the things in this ‘25kgs of safety’ I knew that most of the material was not required either by the Act or the Standard itself, unbelievable. Regulators continue to create these checking tools and over burden the safety trade under the delusion that once you pass an audit you are somehow safe.

I have written earlier about When Tools Become Methods ( and here are the some of the dangers I explained to Ted:

The tool is only as good as the designer

When regulators design tools (checklists) they are creating tool-as-method. For example, the workforce now can’t imagine life without a SWMS or a JSEA. The tool becomes indoctrinated in a culture and then enshrined as if it has always been there. Any questioning of the tool becomes heresy and any thinking outside of the box (imagination) is condemned. Worse still, the regulator knows very little about culture (NSW Workcover Culture Survey is an example) and designs tools that make the safety culture worse, not better. Compliance to the thinking design of a misguided tool limits thinking and suppresses the imagination.

The tool doesn’t help manage the unexpected

The excellent work by Weick and Sutcliffe (2007, Managing the Unexpected) ought to be 101 reading for everyone in the safety trade. Nothing is more predictable than after an event that someone will say, ‘I couldn’t see that coming!’ Or ‘ I had no idea they would do that’. The fact is, when we squash the safety trade into the sausage thinking of excessive audits about, excessive fear about, excessive checklists and excessive indoctrination – we drive out the most important capability a safety person can have, imagination. Here we are in a trade focused on the issue of uncertainty at work driving out the very capability required to manage uncertainty.

The after affect effect

One of the worse effects of coming through an audit is the relaxed post-audit state it creates, the opposite of what Hudson calls ‘chronic unease’. The key to maintaining safety and managing risk is not the peak and troughs of the audit to ‘audit wave’ but a greater and more consistent sense of ‘collective mindfulness’ (Weick and Sutcliffe again). The back slapping that comes after the agony of a nonsense OFSC audit is a greater problem than the audit itself. The gymnastics undertaken for the presence of the OFSC auditor are then relaxed so everything can go back to normal. I don’t know a single construction company that says the OFSC adds any value to safety indeed, most say it has made everything worse. It’s like the grubby kid who gets dressed up to go to church, underneath they are still a grubby kid, but the one hour show looks great.

The success of excess

What has developed in the past 10 years in the safety trade is this bizarre notion that volume of activity equates to quality of outcome. We can now talk of ‘25 kgs of safety’ or ‘30 kgs of safety’ about safety management plans. When organisations trust in volumes of safety they often become blind to the culture of safety, confusing systems for culture. None of this paperwork counts for squat in court if it is disconnected from the real culture of how risk is managed at work. Indeed, the greater the inconsistency of paperwork with workplace reality, the more the courts will crucify you with it. Regulators should be talking about the reduction of regulation and checklists not the expansion of such. The limitations of humans to manage excess is called ‘bounded rationality’ (Herbert Simon The more excessive systems become, the more humans create by-products to ‘manage’ the excesses of the system eg. heuristics, autopilot, double speak etc).

Safety schizophrenia

What all this excess does is turn the safety trade into a bi-polar activity. As the pressure of conformance to non-thinking checklists expands, the dumbing down of the safety trade increases. My mate Ted tells me, he simply has no time to reflect, think or be considered in his work, he runs from one thing to the next and still doesn’t get all the paperwork done. It creates a ‘fault line’ between what he knows actually creates safety on site and the lack of creativity he is ‘forced’ to focus on. The time and space required for reflection and imagination is gone. Most safety people I know resonate with this idea that their job as being made more bi-polar.

No Longer Risk Intelligent

The ability to sausage out compliance to a checklist is not such an intelligent exercise, it’s just ‘mix and match’. And, when there is a non-compliance (usually something petty and ridiculous) the auditor tells you how to fix it anyway. So you don’t have to ‘think creatively’ to pass an audit, but you have to be imaginative on site to tell the future. Trouble is, you don’t even see the word ‘imagination’ float about much in the safety trade or at safety trade conferences. Whilst you will hear plenty of presentations on law, fear and compliance, I haven’t seen or heard of anyone presenting on the importance of imagination in managing risk. Do a Google search on safety and the imagination and compare to safety and compliance and you will get the idea.

Good as passing audits

When I was at Uni I had a friend who was outstanding at passing exams with next to no preparation and other highly intelligent friends who couldn’t pass exams. Audit and exam mentality suits only one of the 9 learning intelligence types and personalities. People who know how to pass audits are really good at passing audits, but the audit personality, that is good at passing audits, is not good at being imaginative. Most often the ‘audit personality’ is poor at communication, poor in people skills and ineffective in supervision – all essential for managing risk on site. It’s like counting injury statistics, all it proves is that you are good at counting injury statistics, there is no connection between the statistic and audit with the creation of safety and the imagination of risk.

So what is the prognosis? Is anything likely to change? Probably not, the regulator and OFSC lacks the imagination to think outside the box indeed, the public service culture and regulative culture considers imagination unnecessary not only for their job but also for safety.

Imagine if you can, standing in the dock in court and telling the coroner that you fulfilled every demand of the regulation and 4801 and still someone was hurt. Easy to imagine isn’t it?

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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