The Safety Blame Game
Far too many people involved in OHS, including some Safety People, spend too much time playing the blame game.
Article by the late George Robotham
When you pick up the newspaper and listen to the television or radio you will find terms like driver error, human error and pilot error used frequently as if this was the definitive reason why “accidents”, more precisely referred to as personal damage occurrences, occur. We are surrounded by this everyday and it is an accepted part of our society. Society wants to find out who was to blame so they can be punished and the media whip up a frenzy with juicy stories.
Authorities such as the police may have a focus on human error so they can find out who to blame and penalise after car crashes. When it comes to common law claim settlements the legal authorities will seek to apportion blame so they can allocate settlements accordingly.
OHS people can become fixated on the blame game during statute and common law claim hearings. They may be involved in arguing the case for the employer and apportioning blame on the injured employee. Sometimes decent humanity goes out the door.
Incidents have occurred where management performance was less than satisfactory yet the employer seeks to play the blame game with employees.
Permanently life altering personal damage (Class 1) can be fatal or non-fatal, the people involved suffer enormous disruption to their lives. Some would argue it is unethical to also burden them with the blame for the consequences.
Having been involved in managing the aftermath of some permanently life altering personal damage an observation of mine is that some organisations indulge in imaginative rear end covering after the fact. I am reminded of the Annual Report of one major company who went into great detail on how they had reduced L.T.I.F.R., a footnote mentioned briefly there had been a number of fatalities.
Now I am not going to be silly enough to say people are not part of the personal damage occurrence process, of course they are. A major objection to the human error concept is that there is usually a focus on the “errors” of the individual who was damaged and people do not look at the contribution of others who developed and managed the overall system being worked in. The term human error often misdirects effort in safety. With personal damages occurrences I have investigated I have found that people have done what on the surface appears to be some pretty stupid things, often when one delves into the reason why they have done these things you find the environment and the equipment have contributed to the decision making process. I must admit there have been occasions, not many, when I have walked away from an investigation, after trying to do a thorough, professional and objective job, and thought what the person did was just dumb. Of course we all do dumb things at times and are usually not damaged in the process.
If you look at Geoff McDonald’s Analysis Reference Tree-Trunk model of personal damage occurrence investigation you will find every personal damage occurrence will have Person, Environment and Equipment essential factors, the percentage contribution will vary. The trouble with the human error concept is that some organisations will concentrate on people fixes and forget about the equipment and environment fixes. Often fixing the person is the least effective way of getting meaningful change. For critical issues it is often more reliable to depend on things instead of people. Often working on the Person in association with working on the Environment and the Machine will be appropriate.
In the paper Three Images To Guide Work Safety And Health Geoff McDonald indicates that the apportionment of cost for permanently life altering personal damage in 2005-6 was-
One has to ask if it is ethical for the employee to be saddled with the majority of the cost of the more serious personal damage
The above recognises there is a part to play in training workers and have supervisors enforce that the learnt behaviour occurs. You need to recognise that a “Least time, least effort” approach is a natural tendency with human beings and this is sometimes responsible for the behaviour you see.
The belief in human error as a major cause (another emotionally laden term) of “accidents” is one of the many myths and misconceptions that hold back the progress of safety and contributes to a poor body of knowledge. It is sloppy, unscientific and emotive terminology.