Originally posted on July 2, 2012 @ 9:12 AM
by Dr Robert Long for the thinkers amongst us – with a few subtle bits of logic thrown in for the unsuspecting. Does your perceived power and knowledge, your “holier than thou” attitude or your safety policing approach lead to under reporting?
When safety language is not everyday language on site but the language of acronyms of a class of people with special knowledge about ‘the Act’, we find under-reporting. People often feel intimidated by the professional class and don’t respond well to the safety policing approach. We are not that dissimilar to children, we don’t confess up to people who are going to belt us.
No Secrets and the Professionalisation of Safety Knowledge
The song No Secrets by Doc Neeson and The Angels released in 1980 became a signature tune for many baby boomers. As I listened to the song yesterday on the radio I reflected on the importance of openness and transparency. With apologies to all Gen Y readers (and younger) for digging up a 30 year old song I think the subject of secrets in safety is worth a discussion.
Nothing is more devastating to a relationship than a dark secret. Nothing is more destructive in a performance review than some sudden revealed secret. There should be no surprises in any performance review. Secrets are a source of power, often used to hurt and manipulate others. Sometimes secrets are kept under the auspices of not wanting to hurt others. Sometimes secrets are unintended by-products of goals we aspire to or ideologies we find attractive. Whatever the reason, the idea of a secret is the withholding of knowledge and information from another. The idea of hiding or keeping things hidden for political and power advantage is one of the main problems with secrets. By keeping something a secret others don’t learn, the opposite of a secret is reporting. Under-reporting is essentially secret keeping. We hear a lot of discussion in the safety airwaves about a Just Culture and reporting but not much on how and why we keep secrets in safety. To whose advantage is a safety secret?
One of the best selling videos and books of all time has been The Secret. The Secret was released in 2006 and has sold 21 million copies in 44 languages. The premise of The Secret is that the universe is governed by the ‘law of attraction’ and success in life is achieved by tapping into this power. The idea of The Secret came from some entrepreneurial thinkers based on the 1910 publication The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace Watties. The story of The Secret endorses that fact that snake oil is still attractive to many people. The fundamental thesis is: if you pray hard enough and believe hard enough, you will get what you desire. This is the secret. Oh my god, now that you know the secret, it’s no longer a secret. Kids about the age of 4 years of age, learn and understand what a secret is. My granddaughter loves to ‘whisper’ in my ear in front of others and delights in telling secrets, it’s a game.
When it comes to safety officers I find many in the safety industry unintentionally ‘hide’ in expertise about systems and the Work Health and Safety (WHS) Act, it’s regulations and associated standards. Whilst it’s not intentional, it’s just what happens when you develop thousands of pages of text and ask a group of people to understand, know and enact that knowledge. The truth is most of us can’t remember or easily recall that much detail but this is the way professionalisation works. The moment we professionalise safety we create a group of people with exclusive knowledge, exclusive power, exclusive language and exclusive culture. This is the nature of professionalisation, that’s how teachers, doctors and lawyers sometimes unintentionally bamboozle you. It’s how professionalisation works. When you don’t have the knowledge you just have to trust that the doctor does.
Now, there is nothing wrong with the idea of a safety profession but we do need to realize that the process of professionalisation creates secrets. The nature of professionalisation accumulates power in the expertise of safety law, safety language and association. Whilst this is not intentional, it does create the idea that safety expertise is only the work of this group. One of the big struggles for safety professionals on sites is the challenge of safety ownership. Unfortunately, the process of professionalisation works against the idea of safety ownership, it’s counterintuitive. If safety people are more aware of this dynamic then the process of conversion for safety ownership will be much easier.
It is often the case that cultural language (discourse) on site indicates that safety is the business of the safety professional. When we speak about safety leaders, workers tend to point to the person paid to know about safety. The safety person is often seen as the special ‘body of knowledge’. The confusion is the difference between knowing about safety theory and acting safely. Our cultural language needs to show that acting safely is not the exclusive knowledge of a group of people. If we create a culture where understanding risk and safety is perceived to be the work of a paid person, we will struggle to develop safety ownership.
One of the greatest concerns for the safety profession is under reporting. Unfortunately. the professionalisation of safety language actually drives reporting underground. Under-reporting means secrets and limitations to learning. When safety language is not everyday language on site but the language of acronyms of a class of people with special knowledge about ‘the Act’, we find under-reporting. People often feel intimidated by the professional class and don’t respond well to the safety policing approach. We are not that dissimilar to children, we don’t confess up to people who are going to belt us. There nothing less motivational than the message that secret keeping will cop a flogging, especially from the people who generate the secrets.
What troubles me most about the professionalisation of safety process is when people delight is the process of distancing and hiding, people who enjoy ‘the secret’. We see this when ‘so called’ safety professionals put the fear of god in people about safety and then make them dependent on the safety officer to manage risk. Nothing is more deceptive than people who revel in a secret for the sake of the good of someone else. This kind of game playing has no place in the safety industry and creates the idea that the safety professional is perfect in safety. There are no perfect people rather, vulnerability attracts openness and reporting. There is no place in the safety industry for people who strut about with their legal knowledge with the whole purpose of either drumming up business or scaring others. We need ideals, goals, targets, language, discourse and enactment that doesn’t create secrets.