Sesame Street Safety
Sesame Street was first broadcast in 1969, a TV show aimed to help preschool children prepare for schooling, particularly in literacy and numeracy. As I presented to safety advisors this week at a conference I was stunned that no one in the room (all highly experienced safety people) knew of or had read, HB327 The Handbook on Communicating and Consulting About Risk. This neat little publication is a wonderful handbook to the Risk Management Standard AS/NZS ISO 31000:2009. I often ask the question in groups of safety people as to how many know or have read this publication. If the primary business of safety people is communicating and consulting about risk, why is this publication a mystery to most safety people. When I asked the same group of people what they read and know about risk it dawned upon me that the safety industry is next to illiterate when it comes to communicating and consulting about risk. Perhaps safety needs it own version of Sesame Street – Safety Sesame Street.
If Safety Sesame Street went to air the first character I would eliminate would be Count Von Count. The reason why safety is so relationally illiterate is because it is too busy counting. The preoccupation with data, counting and the attribution of meaning to data is a virus. Safety people seem fixated on counting yet illiterate in conversation. Safety believes that as long as we publish those precious numbers we can demonstrate safety, a complete delusion. Injury data is not a measure of safety, no amount of injury data helps in the prediction of future attitudes and values required to help an organization maintain a culture of discerning in risk. The safety industry is so preoccupied with zero that it counts, shifts, hides, juggles, argues classifications and creates damn lies. People sit in site sheds and home with laptops, get baby sat in offices, moved about organisations and are classified and re-classified so that their number won’t be counted. What an absurd state this industry is in, numerate in statistics but don’t know how to consult anyone. What a bunch of muppets or is that spud heads.
The characters to keep in Safety Sesame Street are Big Bird (except no one sees him) and Ernie and Bert. Big Bird has the enquiring mind of a 6 year old, always asking questions and wanting to know. Big Bird doesn’t buy snake oil but asks for evidence and research for what’s behind things, a shame safety tends not to have this critical thinking mindset. It seems that safety just goes with the noise, accepts the nonsense of zero and doesn’t rock the boat. To be qualified in safety all you need is to regurgitate the Act and Regulation and count. What an amazing situation that one can do a qualification in safety and study so little about human motivation, judgment, decision making, perception, learning and critical thinking.
Safety Sesame Street desperately needs Ernie and Bert, the consummate conversationalists, always prepared to dialogue between Ernie’s maverick ideas and Bert’s conservative disposition. They respect each other, respect conversation, listen and value verbal assessment of risk.
In Safety Sesame Street I would keep Kermit (the voice of reason), the Cookie Monster (emotionally charged to cookies), Elmo (always participating in everything), Fozzie Bear (happy and positive) but sadly Miss Piggy would have to go. The idea of the safety superstar doesn’t fit in the safety narrative and certainly has no place in Safety Sesame Street.
So what would Safety Sesame Street focus on in the first episode? Wouldn’t it be good to shift the focus from mechanistic thinking and counting to dialogue about people. The bizarre idea that safety is primarily about engineering would have to disappear. Wouldn’t it be good to have an episode about how people make decisions and why safety should be a relational and communal activity. We could bring in the Grouch and he could complain about counting and being stuck in an office rather than walking and conversing on site. Maybe he could complain about the regulator and organisations who think of such spud head things as Hazardman and Dumb Ways to Die.
In the first episode Kermit could talk about sensemaking and the nonsense of ‘common sense’. Fozzie could talk about positivity and engagement, making sure that safety was not the butt of all jokes and the pawn for political interest groups. Elmo could help gather everyone together and drive the idea that safety is something everyone ‘owns’. Ernie and Bert could help promote conversation and Kermit could help everyone understand how risk makes sense.
With more than 1000 Sesame Street characters I’m sure we could develop more episodes that fostered a culture that developed safety literacy. We could stop counting and telling and start engaging other to think and discern their own risk.