The Non-Science of Safety Science
By Dr Rob Long
We seem to throw words about in the safety community like hoop-la at a school fete. This not only applies to the use of the word ‘culture’ but also to destructive terminology that undermines the sensibility of understanding risk. Expressions like ‘common sense’, ‘can do’, ‘zero harm’, ‘be careful’ and ‘get the job done’ are all laden with ill-defined messages that tend to delude the listener into thinking they understand what the communication is about. As for the sender of the message, when they speak in such words they believe they have actually said something. For example; suggesting that a person use their ‘common sense’ to assess safety is like asking for directions in the bush without a compass.
I conducted the MiProfile survey (http://vimeo.com/24764673) on October 22 2012 for the MBA ACT at the National Convention Centre in Canberra. The Safety Culture Leadership Forum was a whole day event that commenced early morning, so as to catch a good number of construction workers in the cohort. The participants in the MiProfile were a representative group of 125 people from all levels of companies (tier 1 to residential, the demographic is explained at the front of the report). The report presented to the MBA ACT documents the current level of gut knowledge associated with perceptions of safety in the Building and Construction industry. Some interesting results include: a high level of naivety about safety, the ineffectiveness of the white card, normalized blaming, ignorance of the effect of language on culture and no time for ‘soft skills’ in the industry. If you would like a copy of the report it can be downloaded here (http://www.humandymensions.com/publications) it is item number 7 titled ‘Safety Culture Leadership Forum Report MBA ACT 22 October 2012). Many of the findings from this event are confirmed by previous results (from my database over 16,000 building and construction workers MiProfile survey events conducted in the past 5 years).
The MiProfile report from the Safety Leadership Forum confirms that many in that industry have little idea how their language ‘primes’ thinking and behavior. This brings me to one of the most annoying uses of language in the safety sector and that is the expression ‘safety science’.
The idea that safety is a ‘science’ baffles the imagination. The idea of ‘science’ (meaning knowledge) originates back to Aristotle’s use of the term ‘knowledge’. Following advances in the 18th century the idea of science was understood to mean ‘reliable knowledge’. During the 19th Century the word ‘science’ became more associated with the idea of scientific method and the idea of scientific objectivity was held up as some kind of achievable ideal. The whole idea of certainty was attached to this idea of science until the work of Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions 1962) and then the whole idea of scientific objectivity went out the window. Further work by Popper and Laktos in the 1970s continued to erode the idea of scientific objectivity. It was finally made clear that Science and Mathematics are a subjective philosophy as much as any social science. The work of Paul Feyerbend (Against Method 1975 and Science in a Free Society 1978) totally pulled apart the myth of scientific objectivity. This revolution then brought about the validation of participant observation and the importance of subjective research. At the same time the work of postmodernists and poststrucuralists further dispensed with the idea of an objective science or an objective scientific method.
When it comes to the measurement of risk we know that the idea of objective assessment is a nonsense. The idea that a matrix with three elements can be some kind of scientific assessment of risk is so fanciful that it doesn’t really merit discussion. With over 250 various human cognitive biases, heuristics and social psychological prejudices, a risk matrix is at best a conversational tool. The various matrices and Heinrich-type pyramids about the industry are at best entertainment in the search for objectivity in safety. The Work Health and Safety Act uses language like ‘as low as reasonably practicable’ (ALARP), surely a statement of subjectivity. The AS/NZS ISO 31000:2009 standard defines risk as ‘the effect of uncertainty on objectives’, further affirmation that the assessment of risk is about the unpredictable, the gambles and luck of humans engaging with risk in their environment in a subjective way.
Whilst the idea of ‘safety science’ may appeal to some it is delusional to think that some kind of objective measure and machine-like method can be applied to human beings. The more we deny the reality of human subjectivity in risk assessment the more we will believe that systems are the best way to manage safety. When we believe that humans conform to some kind of Heinrich formula we simply delude ourselves into thinking we can ‘control’ others.
We are now at a saturation point in safety with so much cognitive overload that the excess of safety systems is now driving safety cultural problems such as ‘tick and flick’ and ‘she’ll be right mate’. Over the last 6 months there have been a number of fatalities and serious injuries in my home town, Canberra. This is why the MBA conducted the safety Leadership Forum in response to recent events. Many of the common factors in the recent tragic events were: working alone, a lack of positive supervision, low levels of ‘walking the job’ and little conversation. When these tragic events occurred all the paper work was complete but no one had talked to the person about what they were thinking about doing. Then everyone is amazed after the event by the choices made as if everyone is a mind reader.
Unless we believe that human behavior is both unpredictable and uncertain we will continue to walk the path of excessive safety systems and ‘safety science’.