Risk, Safety and Fundamental Attribution Error

Risk, Safety and Fundamental Attribution Error

safety statisticsWhat do they say about damn lies and statistics? Well, maybe safety hasn’t heard about that one, nor it seems has the CFMEU or ACT Regulator. Recently the Secretary of the CFMEU trotted out yet again the statistic that the ACT Building and Construction Industry has a ‘shocking’ record ( See bad language is not the issue). This is based upon a spike in statistics (four fatalities) for the Jurisdiction December 2011 to September 2012. The ACT regulator also gives out the same spin yet, if the ACT record was calculated over 10 years it is a very different story. Whilst this discussion in no way seeks to diminish the tragedy of four people who lost their lives, it is nonetheless tragic that people make mileage out of safety statistics.

Between December 2011 and September 2012 four people lost their lives in the ACT Building and Construction industry. This sparked an outcry resulting in an inquiry and publication of the ‘Getting Home Safely’ Report . Despite the outcry and fixation on the Report, none of it’s central cultural recommendations and findings have been acted upon. Some calculative, mechanistic and regulatory interventions have been implemented but as far as culture is concerned, nothing has changed. It is amazing how selective various agencies can be when it suits their own agenda. There is nothing more dangerous than selective safety.

The problem with statistics and safety is fundamental. The problems are many:

  • Counting safety by the absence of harm is illogical and dangerous. (asserting the presence of something by the absence of its opposite is illogical)
  • Attributing cultural health to an absence of injury is dangerous.
  • Attributing safety to low statistics completely ignores underlying cultural issues.
  • Aberrations and regression to the mean  are totally ignored by calculative safety.
  • Cultural hubris is more dangerous than high injury statistics (eg. Deep Water Horizon were celebrating zero harm on the day they killed 17 people and billions of tons of oil flowed into the gulf).
  • Attributing significance to a spike in data is irresponsible.
  • Setting absolute and perfectionist goals (zero harm) drives absolutist and black and white organizational culture.
  • A culture infused by language and discourse of statistical gymnastics and political point scoring drives toxicity in skepticism, cynicism and deficit thinking.
  • The delusion of curves (https://safetyrisk.net/sexy-curves-and-the-paradox-of-risk/ ) and attribution of significance to curves primes calculative fixation and a numerical mindset.
  • Attribution of cultural significance to numerical change drives a sub-culture of hiding, punitive and deficit discourse. Then someone invents a zero harm app or calls their safety people ‘zero harm managers’ . Very soon the priming and semiotics drives absolutist culture ( See Colin Wiggins denies bullying).

Attribution is when we give something value and significance where there is none. It works like this. Your team is playing poorly and they are normally top of the table, the coach yells at them at half time and they seem to boost and then win the game. You then attribute significance to the half time yelling and determine that this won the game. Further see Fundamantal Attribution Error (FAE) . FAE is only one of many social psychological factors that affect perception, motivation, risk and human decision making. Safety would do well to move away from a calculative mindset primed by the numeric of zero. (For more research try The Psychology of Human Judgment and Decision Making by Scott Plous.) For a humorous look at FAE try this lovely piece by Tim Minchin

Recently, Nick Kyrgios has performed well at the Australian Open but his Mum attributed his success to her walking out of his important clash with Andreas Seppi. Kyrgios was down two sets and looked like he was finished. This is when his Mum left the arena. At that moment he picked up and won the next three sets and the match ( See I think maybe I’m jinxing him) . This is how Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) works, his Mum is convinced that her presence acts as a jinx. Similar attributions were made about Mitchell Johnson’s moustache in the 2013 Ashes series (https://safetyrisk.net/why-be-rational-when-the-good-old-lti-superstition-will-do/). Attribution thrives on superstition and you will see plenty of superstition in the sports arena. There is just as much superstition in safety attribution giving significance to statistics and attributing injury statistics with cultural significance. It works like this. Some organization experiences nil injuries for a period (eg. BP) and they celebrate the achievement of nil (temporarily). The celebration of nil drives overconfidence as a by-product and this in turn makes the culture less safe, primed by zero language. Then when the next injury occurs, the organization purges itself, has another enquiry, increases regulation and attributes reform and improvement to it. Then when the workers and organization are ‘flooded’ with regulation (cognitive overload) this drives the cultural by-product of ‘tick and flick’ therefore making the industry less safe.

It has now been two and half years since the spike in statistics in the ACT Building and Construction industry. No doubt the key political players will attribute this success to enacting selective recommendations in the Getting Home Safely Report. Interestingly, in the 8 months following the spike in statistics and without any of enactment of recommendations in the Report, no increase in regulation or inspectors, things improved in the ACT Building and Construction Industry. What can we attribute to that?

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

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