The Safety Blame Game

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-

Employer 7.5%

Employee 78.6%

Community 13.9%

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.



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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