Safety Silver Bullet

Latest article by Dr Robert Long which attacks the idea that one can solve a safety system problem by simply building ever expanding safety systems! Oh and a little swipe at BBS and Zero Harm! If you liked this article then you should read the whole series: CLICK HERE. I highly recommend you check out Rob’s book “RISK MAKES SENSE

How are the Safety Silver Bullet and Safety Snake Oil Sales Going?

If you concept map a safety management system it can look something like this:

safety system

Within each of these elements are many more sub-elements numbering in hundreds more sub-elements. Safety systems are now complex codependent systems such that changing one part of the system can have unforeseen and diabolical consequences on other parts of the system. This situation was defined by Rittel and Webber (1973) as a ‘wicked’ problem.

The idea that one can solve a safety system problem by simply building ever expanding safety systems, shows that such propositions don’t understand safety as a ‘wicked’ problem. The exponential explosion of safety bureaucracy in the last 5 years demonstrates that safety orthodoxy simply holds a larger portion of the leg of the elephant in the room. When we understand safety as a ‘wicked’ problem we know that even our attempt at solutions can sometimes emerge to be part of a new problem.

The idea that complex and ‘wicked’ problems can be solved by simplistic, singular and closed solutions is just the selling of snake oil. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the marketing of BBS, the mantra of zero or the ‘spin’ of ‘all accidents are preventable’, silver bullet language about safety should be an indicator of something to avoid.

When it comes to safety and the nature of humans we should be careful of any statements of absolutes, fundamentalist black and white crusades or cult-like language and discourse. Simplistic black and white language about safety solutions is an indicator of ignorance rather than an indicator of competence.

When we know that safety is a ‘wicked’ problem we know that attempts at solutions must be realistic, open, transdisciplinary, human-centred and informed. Simplistic goals shaped in ignorance of psychology, discourse analysis, cognitive dissonance, culture, heuristics and neuropsychology remain simplistic goals. Such goals may sound good and look good, but they have little ability to do good. Indeed, such goals demonstrate that the proponent is in a state of unconscious incompetence as indicated in the diagram below (from Gordon

unconscious competence

It was Gladwell (Outliers 2008) that demonstrated that unconscious competence comes from 10,000 or more hours of developmental maturation. In Outliers he uses the example of The Beatles and Bill Gates to demonstrate this point.

Yet when it comes to safety strategies and goal setting in the safety community it seems that competence comes automatically with a breath and a heart beat.



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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