Measurement Anxiety in Safety
When we say that something has affected us ‘beyond measure’ we express one of the truisms of life. Many times in life we not only experience things ‘without measure’ but we are also ‘lost for words’. It is often in moments of ecstasy, suffering, awesomeness and depression that words and number cannot help express our emotion, feeling or intuition about an experience. It is in times like this we turn to Poetics (song, dance, art, literature etc) to try and express experience. It is senseless to try to give measure to things that are ‘without measure’.
With every number I hear associated with Covid 19 there is a person in suffering, pain and sickness. There are also families in suffering, isolation and despair hidden in each number. The over-representation of numbers always works to desensitize people to the human and person in this way. Slovic has documented well how numerics desensitizes people to suffering (https://www.apa.org/members/content/covid-19-psychic-numbing).
One of the by-products of an excessive focus on numeric is ‘psychic numbing’. When Safety fixates on injury rates so much it creates this problem of shift in focus from the person to the numeric itself. This is a problem for an industry that primarily focuses on objects not subjects. We see this evidences in the AIHS BoK and WHS curriculum.
When I read much of the fluff floating about safety about Covid 19 it too is on objects. Safety is having a field day with its favourite preoccupation in PPE.
Slovic has written much on the seduction of numeric and has a website that draws attention to the need for an arithmetic of compassion (https://www.arithmeticofcompassion.org/about). In psychic terms a fixation on the primacy of data is a mental health disorder. Psychic numbing is also evident in the way people shift into dehumanization on social media as if the receiver of violence on the other end is not a person.
One of the things we study in SPoR is the nature of all that cannot be measured. It is so important to focus on what counts in human living not just what can be counted. Most of what can be counted in safety is not important most of what counts (human persons) gets shifted into the background by a fixation on numeric.
I find the anxiety with numerics in the safety industry fascinating. I see many who claim to be doing something differently only to return to the primacy of measurement when it comes to humans and safety performance. It seems that qualitative expression is not good enough (https://safetyrisk.net/the-quantitative-and-qualitative-divide-in-safety/) even though the courts happily accept qualitative testimony as valid evidence. Ah, not Safety.
When I read stuff about ‘safety performance’ there’s always a graph and the language is mostly measurement discourse, even when using the word ‘learning’. And with numeric linguistics always comes the language of ‘technique’.
Ellul makes it clear that the ideology of Technique is its own seduction (https://monoskop.org/images/5/55/Ellul_Jacques_The_Technological_Society.pdf ). Technique is not about technology but rather the ideology of efficiency and with that comes the anxiety for measurement. Further still, it is interesting to watch this anxiety try to turn mumbo jumbo like the risk assessment matrix into a measure even though we know that it is neither scientific nor measurement. Still, Safety attributes value to it as if it is such a measure.
You want to watch ‘measurement anxiety’ cut in when I suggest to safety people that they drop the matrix and get rid of all its associated colored ‘mumbo jumbo’. Such is the power of superstition and ritual in safety that this often becomes the litmus test for a will to humanize safety. The resistance to getting rid of the matrix often becomes a qualitative measure of just how much they have been indoctrinated with Technique (measurement ideology). In Greg Smith’s words this is his ‘go to’ tool for sorting out whether someone has any idea about how to tackle risk (https://vimeo.com/166158437 ). Greg describes many of these tools as the ‘most dangerous’ when it comes to tackling risk.
One of the most important skills in risk and safety is being able to identify if the tools that are actually effective in helping people identify risk. Unfortunately, most of the tools being used simply don’t work even though we have been indoctrinated that they do. They have more in common with an Ouija board than sense-ability (https://safetyrisk.net/but-we-have-safety-systems-in-place/ ). Unless Safety can get things back to balance (https://safetyrisk.net/the-quantitative-and-qualitative-divide-in-safety/) and give greater value to qualitative matters in tackling risk then we are likely to remain disabled by ‘measurement anxiety’.