The Real Barriers to Safety

Hopefully the first of many articles by Matt Thorne from Risk Diversity:

clip_image002I was at a restaurant last week and had extended my time in the dining room past the end for breakfast. Everyone had left and my guest and I stayed on for conversation not realising the section had been closed. When we wanted to leave the location there was a barrier in our way. This barrier was in place to communicate to those outside not to come in. For those inside it had become a barrier not to get out. However, the barrier was lowered inviting us to step over it. Hmmmm, the cardinal sin for any safety crusader is ye olde trip hazard! I wish Hazardman had been there! How was I going to step over this threat to life and limb and get about my world for the day? Where was my SWMS template when I needed it most?

Of course, when you look at the hazard you realise the absurdity of the question. The unrealistic panic of the safety crusader makes such petty risk absurd. My guest and I simply stepped over the rope and went on our way. So somewhere along the way we seem to have lost all perspective on everyday risk and what to do about it.

So, we managed to escape the hazard horror of a rope barrier and headed out to a 10 story commercial building site to conduct training workshops in safety observations and conversations. As I walked in on site, I noticed a mobile crane slewing its load over the heads of 6 workers tying steel. Several formworkers were beside the crane focused on their timber and concreters bending over in full swing. As I entered the office to sign in I was met by the safety guy who was questioning an electrician about his choice of gloves. As part of the eschewing argument I heard the comment – ‘I know its bullshit but do it anyway’.

During the workshop it became clear than very few on site had done any work at all in effective questioning, effective listening, observing critical indicators of risk and a host of important concepts needed to engage workers and maintain and safe worksite. But we know how to police gloves and but not slewing cranes overhead.

As part of the conversation in the workshop they discussed the mobile crane and several suggested that safety on site was a ‘tick and flick’ exercise. Wow, what a confession. What was the real barrier to safety? Was it the rope suspended 5 cms from the carpet or was it a worldview that creates barriers to thinking? Was it a petty tripping hazard or a mindset that panics about petty risk and is blind to tick and flick? This is the challenge we now face one a daily basis in this industry.

It strikes me that the real barriers to safety are not the many petty things that preoccupy us but rather the big ticket items that get in the way of safety, such as: the inability to ask open questions, the lack of listening on site, poor supervision, a ‘know all’ attitude to risk, lack of training in observation skills and a host of unseen barriers in attitudes and values that pose the greatest risk to safety.

Matt Thorne

Matt Thorne

Executive Director at Risk Diversity
Risk Diversity coaches and mentors Companies and People to understand Leadership, Culture and Risk, helping them to humanise and harmonise their systems.
Matt Thorne

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17 Replies to “The Real Barriers to Safety”

  1. Keep up the great work. The more this pettifogging is exposed demonstrates the diaphanous integrity of this dog and pony show and extirpates its alleged professionalism.

  2. I don’t disagree Matt but many of the solutions to these barriers seem to come from issues that OHS usually does not engage with, such as staff resourcing, production timelines, lack of appropriate training and knowledge and more. How can the OHS profession affect changes in these areas? Should we become social activists on (non-OHS-related) matters?

    1. So very true Kevin. Not many organisations like WHS meddling in or pointing out deficiencies in other operational areas despite those being the origins of risk.

      That is why I advocate very strongly for (and make a concerted effort to) never talk about ‘safety’ when engaging with people.

      1. How strange how OHS defines itself or w define it. I can’t think of a non-OHS issue. If risk and safety regard the care of people and helping them manage risk, why is OHS so limited to policing OHS regulation and a legislated object-centred worldview? I’m with you David, I rarely talk about safety at work.

    2. Hi Kevin, thanks for engaging. If you have seen the Social Psychology of Risk BoK, you can see that we are taking a multi-disciplinary approach to Risk. As to becoming social activists, most of what I see in these types of spaces is people looking for answers on what is a Wicked Problem.

  3. Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes – Carl Jung

  4. Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have – Margaret Mead

    States are not moral agents, people are, and can impose moral standards on powerful institutions – Noam Chomsky

    A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government – Edward Abbey

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