It’s Always a Number
I was on a conference today and the first question set to the panel was about a number. I didn’t respond to the question but rather asked the conference, why is safety so good at asking dumb questions?
It doesn’t matter whether its injury rates, percentages, zero or TRIFR etc, its always a number. It took 50 minutes for the conference of safety people to ask the panel session a question about care, humanising and helping people tackle risk.
I saw some safety propaganda recently about some big safety innovation, the next thing, the global way forward, a global collaboration, the number one idea and one would think with such language there would be some sense of vision attached to the announcement. Nup, the way forward was yet again another number. What is this industry that doesn’t know how to talk about people, personhood and helping? What is it about this industry that so lacks trust in others it multiplies systems and bureaucracy every time it spews more propaganda about yet another number.
As long as Safety frames its world around numbers it will never have vision. As long as Safety deludes itself that numerics and metrics determine safety it will play the same merry-go-round and then wonder in 10 years why people have no interest in safety. If a number is all you can see and talk about then you have no vision, you simply have a counting disorder.
It’s so strange, when speaking to helping professions they never talk about numbers. Helping professions talk about their concerns to serve others, to help people be their best, to improve and develop quality services so that people can better live. People in helping professions recognize that a priority on numbers dehumanizes people, this is what the Nazis understood so well in World War 2.
I once met an ex-prisoner of war from Dachau when I was 12 years of age and he showed me his number tattooed on his tongue. He explained how the Nazis dehumanized everyone by using numbers. If one ever mentioned a persons name the punishment was severe or one could be shot. The Nazis knew more than anyone that the best way to dehumanize people is to frame all discourse on numbers. We see this also in the workers compensations system. How insulting to call a company iCare that has no focus at all on caring (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-08-24/icare-workers-compensation-insider-speaks-out/12583058 ). Ah yes, but they are great at numbers, particularly those that build their on bank accounts.
How soul destroying to think that all that matters is a number or to be considered as a number. Just imagine if you child’s teacher didn’t call your child by name but changed their name to 13. I wonder how long you would keep your child in that school. Numbers are about efficiency (What Ellul called Technique) not about humans, community or helping.
This is the tyranny that consumes Safety, it is so addicted to numbers it doesn’t know it.
So, just have a look at any safety book title and see how it frames its message. If the title is framed around a number, the book will have no vision so don’t buy it. Anything framed around numbers will most likely be unhelpful, dehumanizing and unprofessional.
Maybe this is why the Australian Hinstitute of Heinrich and Skinner has embarked on a recruitment drive. Its shepherd must have suddenly realized the flock of SHEeple is rapidly diminishing:
Rob Long says
Spot on, and once you turn persons into numbers you can do whatever you want with them
Open Mind says
Reducing living things to numbers allows the counters to sleep better at night.
The lyrics from Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos) by Woody Guthrie reinforce many of the dehumanising aspect of numbers (Just ask the millions claiming Centrelink benefits):
Good bye to my Juan
Adios mis amigos Jesus why Maria
You won’t have a name
When you ride the big airplane
All they will call you
Will be “deportees”
The main media depersonalized the horrific event at Los Gatos Canyon, which occurred back in January 1948 and involved the deaths of 28 migrant farm workers who were being deported from California back to Mexico:
Paddy Reilly performed an inspiring cover version of the song at the Cork opera house:
Rob Long says
‘When you stop measuring you stop developing’ really? Pure mythology. All the most important things in life humans need for maturity and development we DON’T measure! I wonder what score you give your relationships? 7? I wonder how much love you give to your children? 6? I wonder how happy you are today? 3? How good are you at listening? 6? What is the value of your friendship? 5? All human development is NOT measured indeed, you wreck the best things in life by measurement. That’s why when big things happen in our lives we turn to song, ritual and dance to celebrate.
The absurd seduction of safety to measurement is insanity, anything in life that counts we don’t count. The truth is the only things that Safety measures are petty and meaningless and not an indicator of well being or safety.
Muhammad Hamada says
Partially agree… numbers has other meaning in the positive direction … I.e. when we need to reflect efforts made to deliver number of trainings, or number of Leadership worksite visits, number of Observations…
When you drive an old vehicle you might forget to look to the dashboard as some gauges might not be in a working condition but when you want to wing a race you have to look deep into your calibrated dashboard.
Another angle on looking into numbers would be the continual improvement …when you stop measuring you stop developing ….
Continual Improvement is an unending journey!
but how do those effort measurement numbers (assuming they aren’t fabricated) reflect any kind of effectiveness or learning? Those things you suggest we count can have a very negative effect also
Rob Long says
Great book by KIng, obviously on every safety reading list. After safety people complete their qualification they must wonder why they just didn’t do a Maths degree instead.
Today’s scientists have substituted mathematics for experiments, and they wander off through equation after equation, and eventually build a structure which has no relation to reality. – Nikola Tesla
(From – King, Mervyn. Radical Uncertainty: Decision-making for an unknowable future . Little, Brown Book Group. Kindle Edition.)
I can pretty much agree with this. An unhealthy obsession with counting really does add no value, when the numbers are prioritized over much more important details.