It’s a Great Goal, it Just Doesn’t Work
Everyday a man walks down the street of a small country town in South Australia and waves his arms about squawking like a parrot, he has been doing this for several years. One day a visiting policeman sees him and asks him what he is doing. ‘It’s easy’ he says, ‘I’m keeping the dingos away’. The policeman replies, ‘but dingoes don’t live in this area’ to which the man replies, ‘see what a good job I am doing’.
The attribution of meaning and linking of events to consequences is common in many forms of superstitious activity involving risk. The wearing of certain items of clothing to ensure success is common in sports and helps sustain the illusion of control. Carrying luck charms and religious items is common in travel to ensure safety. Most religions have many forms of prayer that seek safety in this way. Similar attributions are also common in safety. So often we see attributions of cause and effect in safety. When there is a bad event in comes a program, new regulation or consultant and things seem to improve. However, this is just regression to the mean. It is more than likely that things would have improved anyway without any action.
This was the case in my home city of Canberra following four fatalities in building and construction in one year. Following an inquiry into the fatalities none of the major recommendations of the Bringing them Home Report have been implemented and yet there have been no fatalities since then. Then when there is a new spike in statistics Safety will ﬁnd a new illogical attribution and do it all over again.
Imagine you need a complex operation, a task not performed many times. You do some research and ﬁnd three surgeons who have done this operation ﬁve times. Surgeon one has lost no patients in the operation, surgeon two has lost one patient and surgeon three has lost two patients, who do you go to? Of course, surgeon one. However, in such a small sample such an attribution is misleading, with only ﬁve operations each. One could get the same result simply by good or bad luck.
But this is how safety works. In comes a zero harm program and the statistics of injury go down, is this due to the program or how the psychology of the goals operates in the minds of workers? The goal of zero cannot be separated from the social psychology of itself. All goals carry their own priming language and psychological attributions. Locked in to a lower order goal (counting stats) attributed as signiﬁcant, creates this psychological delusion.
I have had no accidents in my car for 20 years, I must be a great driver, I hit my second 100 because of my red handkerchief hanging out of my left pocket, I just missed that car because of my St Christopher’s medallion and I got 90% on my test because I was carrying my special dollar, this is how Safety thinks. The more SWMS, the safer we will be, if we look safe we must be safe or low statistics indicate safety, these are the same kind of attributions.
Then we organisations achieve low statistics they can brag about all the moments they achieved zero harm and attribute success to the mantra, I wonder if that’s what BHP Billiton Vale is doing at the moment in Brazil? Zero harm still litters its web pages. Is that what BP did at Mercondo?, zero harm still litters its pages too, or DuPont in Texas, zero harm is all over their pages too despite the fact that the goal can never be achieved. Then deny that the discourse of zero generates denial and risk blindness, look for other attributions and causes for harm, not the fact that the discourse itself psychologically fosters risk hubris. How can one consider imperfection when the language one speaks is perfectionist?
The world is random, humans are mortal and fallible and events emerge because humans don’t possess foresight. It is only Safety that talks such nonsense as infallibility and immortality, because it can’t escape the ignorance of lower order goal thinking and discourse.
Imagine a safety ofﬁcer who stands at the entry gate of your work site with a pink ﬂag waving it about yelling ‘zero harm’, ‘zero harm’. For every day a human makes no mistake on site or doesn’t report it or hides it, this could be attributed to be a successful safety strategy.
Why not try it, if there is no other goal than zero then this strategy makes just as much sense as anything else a zero harm company does. Then when something goes wrong like killing people and pouring billions of tonnes of toxic mud everywhere, keep the activity and goal because it works, just not this time.