Safety Myths


Safety Myths

by the late George Robotham

One important factor that influences how OHS is managed is the attitudes and pre-conceptions of those leading the charge. This paper explores beliefs, philosophies, concepts and attitudes and suggests some common ideas may be incorrect or unhelpful, that is they may be myths and misconceptions.

People cause accidents

We would not suggest that people are not essential in personal damage occurrences (Accidents) but the people cause accidents myth and misconception is often used as an excuse for not carrying out positive action. What often happens is we blame the person and forget about making positive changes to the machine and the environment. There are few occasions when it is appropriate to blame the person for their past actions, this is only appropriate when the blame leads to change in the future.

The people cause accidents philosophy has been reinforced in a number of ways over the years.

Heinrich-Although this belief has been part of our culture for centuries, it received official sanction in the writings of Heinrich, widely held to be the father of the industrial safety movement in the 1930’s.

His domino theory whereby unsafe acts, unsafe conditions, errors and hazards combine to produce incidents has tended to focus on the person to blame and has been a serious impediment to meaningful progress.

Legal system-This reflects the belief that people cause accidents.

Insurance industry-Closely tied in to the legal system, seeks to identify some person to blame and pursue through legal channels for any claim.

News media-Media scream driver error in motor vehicle incidents, they scream pilot error in aviation incidents without taking account of the other multitude of essential factors.

Published studies-Many published studies will have you believe 90% of accidents are caused by human error. The reality is all personal damage occurrences will have people essential factors and machine and environment essential factors.

The main aim of safety activities is to prevent accidents

Certainly safety activities aim to prevent personal damage occurrences. However we must take one step further by also seeking to minimise and control damage. A classic example being the wearing of seat belts and fitting R.O.P.S. to tractors.

Look after the pence and the pounds will look after themselves

There is a belief in safety that if you bring controls to bear on all minor injuries then the Lost Time Injuries will look after themselves. This belief has mis-directed effort with the result that inordinate effort is directed at minor incidents that have little potential for more serious damage. Certainly we should prevent minor incidents but remember to concentrate our efforts where we get the best results. The Pareto Effect says 20% of incidents will give 80% of damage. This 20% must be identified and concentrated upon. In Managing Major Hazards Professor Andrew Hopkins outlines how a focus on Lost Time Injuries led to insufficient emphasis on high risk events. Papers are emerging questioning the wisdom of Zero Harm approaches to safety.

It cannot happen to me

There is a need for each and everyone of us to subscribe to this theory, for the sake of our own psychological well-being and to be able to cope with situations outside our control. This belief is often no more than an excuse for taking no action. Often you will wonder why the silly bugger did what they did, sometimes it is because of this belief.

Punishing wrongdoers

I am not saying we should not punish people who do the wrong thing in safety. I am saying that the fact that we do punish wrongdoers will often lead to highly imaginative efforts to avoid punishment and thus make things harder. The history of the safety movement records numerous cases of punishing the wrongdoers not being effective. We should seriously consider the full range of options rather than making hasty decisions to punish the wrongdoers.

W.A.S.P. ethic

This work ethic had its origins in the great religious upheaval know at the Reformation. The ethics emphasis is just reward for effort, conversely people who are hurt in accidents are receiving their just reward for lack of effort. The W.A.S.P. may sidetrack our prevention efforts.

Displacement activities

A displacement activity is something we do, something we put a lot of energy into but when we examine it closely there is no valid reason for doing it. The industrial safety movement reeks of poorly considered displacement activities often marketed by smooth consultants.

Lost Time Injury Frequency Rate is a valid and reliable measure of safety performance

I have personal experience with a company that aggressively drove down L.T.I.F.R. to a fraction of its original rate in a space of about 2 years yet killed 11 people in one incident.

The Lost Time Injury Frequency Rate predominates discussions about safety performance. How can a company be proud of a decrease of L.T.I.F.R. from 60 to 10 if there have been 2 fatalities and 1 case of paraplegia amongst the lost time injuries? The L.T.I.F.R. trivialises serious personal damage and is a totally inappropriate measure of safety performance.

George Robotham

George Robotham

George was a Legend in the Safety World who passed away in Sept 2013 but left us with a great legacy
George Robotham
I have worked in OHS for most of my working life, many years in the mining industry including over 10 years in a corporate OHS role with BHP. Since leaving the mining industry I have worked in a variety of safety roles with a variety of employers, large & small, in a variety of industries. I was associated with my first workplace fatality at age 21, the girl involved was young, intelligent, vivacious and friendly. Such a waste! I was the first on the scene and tried to comfort her and tend to her injuries. She said to me “George, please do not let me die” We put her on the aerial ambulance to Rockhampton base hospital where she died the next day. I do not mind telling you that knocked me around for awhile. Since then I have helped my employers cope with the aftermath of 12 fatalities and 2 other life-altering events. The section "Why do Occupational Health & Safety" provides further detail but in summary, poor safety is simply very expensive and also has a massive humanitarian cost. My qualifications include a certificate I.V. in Workplace Training and Assessment, a Diploma in Frontline Management, a Diploma in Training & Assessment Systems, a Bachelor of Education (Adult & Workplace Education) , a Grad. Cert. in Management of Organisational Change and a Graduate Diploma in Occupational Hazard Management. I am currently studying towards a Masters in Business Leadership. Up until recently I had been a Chartered Fellow of the Safety Institute of Australia for 10 years and a member for about 30 years. My interest is in non-traditional methods of driving organisational change in OHS and I have what I believe is a healthy dis-respect for many common approaches to OHS Management and OHS Training. I hold what I believe is a well-founded perception that many of the things safety people and management do in safety are “displacement activities” (Displacement activities are things we do, things we put a lot of energy into, but which when we examine them closely there is no valid reason for doing them). My managerial and leadership roles in OHS have exposed me to a range of management techniques that are relevant to Business Improvement. In particular I am a strong supporter of continuous improvement and quality management approaches to business. I believe leadership is the often forgotten key to excellence in most aspects of life. I hold the Australian Defence Medal and am a J.P.(Qualified). I have many fond memories of my time playing Rugby Union when I was a young bloke.

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