Is Safety a Choice You Make?
One of the things safety seems good at doing is developing illogical slogans and sayings. Some examples are: ‘all accidents are preventable’ and ‘safety is no accident’. The trouble is what we say affects the thinking of others and sets cultural agenda. Half of this silly stuff comes from people misunderstanding hindsight bias or not understanding the trajectory of what they are saying. The fact of the matter is that humans have unlimited hindsight but limited foresight. All accidents are only preventable if you can see into the future, have a crystal ball or are god. All information and resources are not available to humans to make decisions. Decisions are made within constraints like fallibility and a range of ‘bounded’ ways humans operate. Humans simply cannot optimize, we forget things, we have limited memory and limited perception. So, talk as if humans have unlimited rationality and can read into the future is just safety nonsense and a distraction from engaging with others. The words we use have influence and a trajectory, they take us somewhere. If the outcome of our words is the promotion of a blaming culture, then don’t speak those words. Many of these sayings are convenient distortions used to blame others and project the superiority of the speaker.
Another of these sayings is ‘safety is a choice you make’. Many of the events, incidents and things that happen to us have no element of choice at all. That’s why humans speak so often of luck and fortune. We know we should have had an accident but we didn’t. The odds were against us to lose but we won.
So, if safety is a choice then unsafety must also be a choice. This idea supposes that people want to be unsafe and choose to be unsafe. It totally misunderstands the way humans make decisions and projects blame for all accidents, mistakes and circumstances. So if safety is a choice we make, did everyone on MH17 make a choice to be unsafe? No-one had an idea they were on a plane that was unsafe. As unfortunate as tragedies are, they are not helped by language that tells people after the event that it was preventable.
Humans have limited rationality and cannot see into the future and in most cases make choices that at the time, seem safe and as circumstances change become unsafe. Telling people that safety is a choice tells others that when things go wrong they are to blame, unsafety is their choice. So we just don’t need to talk these nonsense slogans and realize that our talk matters and shapes safety culture.
Most of our decision making is not shaped by rational choice. Many of our decisions are made in the unconscious, are made emotionally, shaped by social circumstance or a host of factors that are completely out of our control. So whilst we do our best within the limitations of what we know, we are not infallible, omnipotent (all powerful) or omniscient (all knowing). If safety is all about my control then I must be to blame when something get’s out of control. How can someone do an sense-able incident investigation with such a silly slogan in their head ‘ safety is a choice you make’. This is why we use the word ‘accident’ to explain an unfortunate circumstance where no one or thing is at fault. Insurance companies call many unexplained unsafe conditions ‘acts of god’ for good reason.
The truth is, in many circumstances we don’t know why something became unsafe, we don’t know why people make snap decisions, we don’t know why some things fail, we don’t know why people have brain snaps, we don’t know why or how a substance or moment will affect choice, we can’t read the minds of others and we don’t know when things will happen. One things we do know is that we keep circulating nonsense sayings through the safety industry we will continue to get under reporting, blaming and project meaning on to actions that are totally biased.
So, lets use words and saying that do not project blame, don’t drive reporting underground and don’t set the culture of work up for failure. We don’t need to talk about zero harm, or safety first, or whatever priority. How about we talk more about caring for each other, having conversations about risk at work without blame and seeking out opportunities for positive learning.
Rob Long says
There are hundreds of cognitive and social influences that determine choice, most are unconscious, unseen and invisible and we don’t know they are acting upon us. It is simplistic in the extreme to suggest that we make choices independently of the hundreds of dynamics that determine choice.
My safety is my responsibility. Not anyone else’s. If I make a decision that isn’t safe, it’s my fault. If I feel like I don’t need to hold the handrails on the stairs then I don’t need to hold the handrails. Safety First mentality only makes you forever a dependent, and ultimately irresponsible.
Is it better for a man to have chosen evil than to have good imposed upon him? – Anthony Burgess
Jimmy Hunter says
Safety is definitely a choice you make. This article is irresponsible to suggest otherwise.
MH17 is a bad example to use to make your point. It was totally rational to believe you would have arrived safely at your destination based on the crash statistics of the airline industry.
I have recently begun working for a company that places safety above all other values. It has changed the way I behave when driving my car due to company rules for texting and talking on the phone while on the property. I have chosen to adopt the same habits off company property because it is safer to be consistent 100% of the time and not living a duplicitous life in terms of transportation on property versus off property. I have also seen firsthand the value in choosing new ways of being safe while working around my house and workshop in terms of using ladders more safely than I have in the past. I also have made safety choices recently in regards to hand safety to protect my hands from injury while working with handheld grinders and saws. I have begun making safer choices to wear hearing protection at times in the past when I would not have done so. All of this is because of the emphasis that my new employer places on safety and additionally because of the slogans, signs and family pictures of “reasons to be safe” that I see on a daily and sometimes hourly basis. I walk by these signs, slogans and pictures and it makes me think about it. In turn, I make choices based upon those thoughts. I have made many safety choices in the recent past that I would not have made beforehand.
And where do you get off saying that no one should be blamed for being unsafe? A manufacturing employee in Tuscaloosa, Alabama recently got into an argument with another employee at work and pulled a gun on her and killed her. Are you saying we should not blame the murderer for her murder? That would be insane. We should definitely be blamed when we commit acts of violence or intentional carelessness. If I get drunk or high and then get behind the wheel of a car or show up at work and cause an accident and someone gets injured or killed by my unsafe choices, are you saying I should not be blamed for that? Are you saying I did not choose to be unsafe? Of course I chose to be unsafe. I knew full well what could happen by putting mind altering substances into my body. I would be caring only about my personal pleasure knowing that it could cause someone else pain or death. That is definitely an unsafe choice and is definitely something for which I should be blamed and the personal injury lawyer will definitely see to it that it is so.
Rob Long says
95% of all human decision making is made ‘without thinking’. Humans develop heuristics and habits so they don’t have to think and this makes them far more efficient. The idea that people have free choice in all things flies in the face of the evidence that suggests otherwise. Humans have no choice over the wayward mind nor many aspects of human living because we are fallible and vulnerable in all we do. The simplistic notion of safety is a choice you make is absurd in the face of all notions of insurance and definitions of ‘accidents’.
At no time do I suggest that people not be held accountable for their actions but to project choice onto those actions is absurd. Human being and doing is highly complex. Humans are not machines not are they predictable or mechanical, behaviours are not measureable or controllable in a behaviourist way.
We can either put our heads in the sand and keep projecting zero onto the world and choice onto the world or we can be real and deal with the reality of human decision making as it happens in reality.
Erik Gunzel says
Thank you Robert Long for your excellent blog and website. I would appreciate your thoughts on the following:
To take a shortcut or not not to take a shortcut.. Is that a “safety choice” that people make?
Rob Long says
Erik, human decision making is not simple and many of our decisions are not premeditated but rather automatic and heuristic. We need workers who can think not workers who conform to the dumb down bias of a checklist. Sometimes the shortcut is the best new way or rather the best adapted process in the face of social change and context. So, its not black and white which is why the dumb down approach to safety doesn’t work, no checklist can foresee change nor assess context. Most checklists can be easily and more comprehensively scrapped for an effective conversation.
Glenn Salter says
I absolutely love the logical approach to the misconception of safety….once again, such useable wisdom….thanks Dr. Long.
Rob Long says
Thanks Glenn, I just don’t get this absurd preoccupation with unprofessional Safety that wants to seek out PR campaigns and marketing companies rather than do anything meaningful in safety. A clear lack of vision and professionalism everywhere to be seen.