The Illusion Of Hazard Identification

The Illusion Of Hazard Identification

Thanks to John Wettstein from for suggesting this latest viral image and its link to hazard spotting.

imageI remember, many years ago, when I was a very dissonant Safety Consultant, being able to walk onto any site and spot a plethora of hitherto undiscovered and potentially deadly hazards – according to my coloured matrix anyway. My clients thought I was a genius!. I would provide a very comprehensive report with just enough subjective advice and quotes from the regulations to give them something to have them think they could fix safety and with just enough vital pieces withheld to keep me employed there for a bit longer. I would send them my invoice and some fancy snake oil brochures, then sit back and reflect on the ethics of “doing” safety this way when I was the only one really benefiting.

Truth is, I don’t have some innate ability or special gift for spotting hazards – I was just a “fresh pair of eyes” supported by an imagination not yet suppressed by some dumb down system. If you were to inspect my home shed or garage at the time then you would probably have called it a death trap – the reason we don’t see everything is a complex matter of cognition, experience, perception, conditioning and all influenced a vast array of unconscious biases (see Bias – You Wonder Why Traditional Safety Can Never Work).

If you have a few hours to spare and a very open mind then there is a lot to discover if you just type “unconscious” into our search box – or follow this link to where I have already done that for you: 

Dr Rob Long explains this really well and succinctly here Hazard Identification where he says:

When it comes to hazards, all hazards are neutral until activated by the risk of the user. A hazard won’t hurt anyone until a user comes in contact with it. So, there is no real separation between hazards and risk. Of course, if the perception of the user is limited by misdirection or selective attention, then the hazard will not be seen and what happens is triggered not by ignorance but perception blindness. The identification of hazards is neither automatic nor ‘common sense’ but relies upon experience, training and intuition, established over time. The identification of hazards also relies heavily on the perception of the user and their cognitive and visual ability. All humans are subject to over 200 biases in cognition and visual perception. In other words, all humans are fallible and are prone to miss things, even the identification of hazards and risks. This is why the issue of working alone increases risk.

The focus exclusively on hazards is not helpful and needs to also take in to account the perceptions and motivation of the user. If the user is risk averse, then they will develop limited risk intelligence and will not be able to make ‘educated/calculated guesses’ in times of uncertainty. This will also include the ability to identify hazards and risk. This ability to exercise ‘risk intelligence’ is what helps us join the dots together when we experience turbulence or the unknown at work.

Optical Illusions

Many of you would have seen this latest (ie viral) optical illusion. There are 12 black dots in this image and this article in THE VERGE tries to explain why you just can’t see all twelve black dots in this optical illusion. I love this quote from that article and I think it may resonate with anyone who is frustrated with the way we currently ‘do’ Safety and Risk

“They think, ‘It’s an existential crisis,'” says Derek Arnold, a vision scientist at the University of Queensland in Australia. “‘How can I ever know what the truth is?'” But, he adds, scientists who study the visual system know that perception doesn’t always equal reality.

So, if we can’t even see 12 black dots on a small square on a computer screen, how confident should we be that we will ever see or identify all the hazards in our workplace or even find “the truth” when we do one of our ‘systematic’ incident investigations? (Another must read is: Just Get to the Bottom of it )



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