Safety – Just a Few Bad Apples
I hear stories everyday about presenters and trainers in the risk and safety space peddling simplistic snake oil as the pathway to success. Often the idea being presented is based on a kernel of something good but then extended out to be something quite dangerous. Unfortunately the safety industry is susceptible to a host of simplistic seductions because the industry is characterized by checklist thinking not critical thinking. This is perpetuated by a WHS curriculum that indoctrinates the safety industry into a narrow banded worldview that doesn’t countenance disciplines that foster critical thinking.
An example was relayed to me yesterday about a consultant presenting in an organization stating that poor safety was about ‘bad apples’. If we can only weed out the ‘bad apples’ then organisations would be safer. The task as presented was to either psychometrically test for these ‘bad people’ and get rid of them or to look at their habits such as inattention or boredom and then locate people prone to these behaviours and then get rid of them. Sound simple? Well of course it is, but people in this organization raved about the presentation not knowing that underneath the simplistic message was a very dangerous philosophy.
The idea that ‘bad behaviours are committed by bad people’ is a nonsense. The idea that such bad people can be diagnostically located is nonsense. The idea that boredom and inattention are indicators of ‘bad apples’ is a nonsense. The idea that ‘bad apples’ should be diagnosed and sacked is eugenics. Eugenics is the same idea that promotes eliminating the Jews as the Final Solution or building a wall to keep the Mexicans out. Projecting blame on a ‘type’ is the foundation of ignorance and all kinds of anti-social activities. I wrote about eugenics a while back https://safetyrisk.net/safety-eugenics-and-the-engineering-of-risk-aversion/ but perhaps we need to revisit the problem.
In this eugenic promotion to eliminate ‘bad apples’ the criteria for selection for being a ‘bad apple’ was inattention, boredom and selective attention, all elements of behavior we are all prone to experience triggered by social context. Targeting such things like inattention as ‘problems’ attributed to individuals is nonsense. However, due to a lack of critical thinking in risk and safety, people buy such nonsense not understanding the dangerous philosophy that underpins its foundations.
Risk and safety is not about ‘bad apples’ anymore than blaming all crime is on ‘bad apples’ or any form of disobedience on ‘bad apples’. How simple to project all blame on to a ‘type’ and then solve a problem by eliminating that ‘type’. Of course, no one knows what such a ‘type’ looks like or how to identify such a type unless of course they are forced to sew a star of David on their jacket. The same stereotypical nonsense abounds in the victimization of such complex problems as drug addiction. Does a suit and tie eliminate drug addiction? How easy is it to attribute some identity to a type and promote zero tolerance.
The trouble with such philosophies as eugenics is that they appeal to people who want simple binary solutions to complex problems. In our complex society anything that smells like a binary simplistic solution should be rejected. By the way, the consultant projecting this simplistic stuff wasn’t qualified in safety, risk or psychology, yet the organization nonetheless brought them in??? Why is it that Safety continually falls for simplistic bells and whistles and gold trinkets? Does anyone not ask interrogative questions about the presentation of simplistic ideas? Does Safety not question the trajectory of where ideas will take them? Where does a crazy semiotic like zero take a population? Where does a eugenic idea like ‘bad apples’ take a population? Since when did boredom and inattention become individual ‘problems’? If Safety needs a change in curriculum in a WHS diploma then the first new subject to include should be critical thinking.