When Safety is Beyond Your Control

imageFor over a month we have been breathing carcinogenic smoke from bushfires in my home city of Canberra. Many other cities and towns are in a similar situation but Canberra (because of its geographical nature) is worst . The levels of hazardous smoke is 20 times an acceptable level. Even with an air purifier in my house the toxicity of the smoke inside is registered as ‘dangerous’. Yet 2 years ago Canberra was ranked the 3rd cleanest city in the world (https://canberra.com.au/canberra-ranked-as-third-cleanest-capital-city-in-the-world/).

So what can Safety (the archetype) do when risk is beyond control? Well one thing is for sure, no one is speaking the nonsense of zero in this city. Zero looks pretty stupid in the face of human fallible living. Zero speak is head in sand nonsense that only a climate denier might utter whilst sitting on the toilet (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2018/12/18/climate-change-deniers-are-danger-our-security/). The three seem to go together.

However, there are two basic safety principles we can engage when faced with risk beyond our control. These are ALARP and the Precautionary Principle and we are seeing these being displayed everywhere during this bushfire crisis in Australia.

ALARP (As Low As Reasonably Practicable) is that safety principle that acknowledges that zero is impossible (https://vimeo.com/162637292). As Greg Smith states on the video: ‘ALARP is a judgment call based on the information known at the time of an event’. ALARP is a trade off against many things like time, cost, effort and situational awareness. How strange that this bi-polarity exists in Safety where this legal term ALARP exists whilst so many organisations profess the anti-fallibility (https://www.humandymensions.com/product/fallibility-risk-living-uncertainty/) slogan of zero! This bi-polarity is framed by such binary language as ‘safety is a choice you make’ and ‘all accidents are preventable’. Well, I wonder what choice the woman had who died at our airport last week (https://www.news.com.au/travel/travel-updates/incidents/woman-dies-from-bushfire-smoke-in-canberra-after-exiting-qantas-plane/news-story/280f1c9bb729c5c4f3377f97936b5cda) from the carcinogenic smoke in our city? Zero indeed.

The other critical principle in Safety is that of the Precautionary Principle. We are witnessing this at the moment with the evacuation of an area twice the size of Wales in SE NSW in expectation of a firestorm possibility. Now, that firestorm may not come, despite the high possibility of all critical factors are lining up to such an event. But, the Precautionary Principle states that it’s better to be wrong in caution than dead wrong in arrogance! One of the best books on the Precautionary Principle is by Cass Sunstein (2008, Laws of Fear, Beyond the Precautionary Principle).

For people who wish to be informed and intelligent about risk these two principles must be held in tension (dialectic). Both of these principles emphasize the subjectivity of human decision making. Both principles are based on human social psychology (https://www.humandymensions.com/product/the-social-psychology-of-risk-handbook/ ) and cannot be measured and yet they form the backbone of all thinking about safety. How silly Safety looks when it trots out all these stats about LTIs and TRIFR when none of it informs decision making in context that is mostly intuitive (unconscious)!

So, what shall we do in Canberra? Stop living?

I love the blog just published by Rob Sams on Resiliencing (https://safetyrisk.net/resiliencing-and-other-such-ings/ ) for several reasons. Firstly, because the blog emphasizes the nature of resilience as a participle. For the non-semantic people, a participle is a noun-verb, it names something and emphasizes its ‘doing’. Its for this reason I changed Karl Weick’s idea of a High Reliability Organisation (HRO statis) into ‘High Reliability Organising’ (HRO active). When we hold to the participle we never arrive and we are always active in our enacting of hope and being resilient. You don’t know you are resilient until you suffer. Suffering is the test of fallibility not its enemy. It is through suffering in living that we learn and hope. Secondly, I like how the blog emphasizes Hope (archetype). Hope creates emergence, we never ‘drift’ into failure. We emerge to something new that is not who we were last week. This is described well by (Letiche and Lissack – http://gg.ead.faveni.edu.br/coherence-in-the-midst-of-complexity-lissack-michael-letiche-hugo-schultz-ron.pdf).

So, it’s about the tensions (dialectic) of living in the now-but-not-yet. We live in a state of if-then, i-thou and what-if, with the tensions held in the hyphen, there is no certainty.

And today we must go outside, we have to shop, the grandkids are coming over. We need to go outside to water plants and check on animals, we need to visit a friend and prepare our fire plan, get on the roof, clear gutters, block drains and when we can, wear a P2 mask outside. Yes, we a coughing, have irritated eyes and feel anxious. The 2003 fires are in the mind of every Canberran (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2003_Canberra_bushfires) but we ‘press on’ a unique metaphor used by Paul (teleioo) to denote non-perfection, fallibility, maturity and hope.

Safety is never ‘attained’ but a work in progress in tension between ALARP and the Precautionary Principle.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

2 Replies to “When Safety is Beyond Your Control”

    1. Thanks Andrew. There is much suffering in our country at present and more to come, with at least 6 more weeks of extremely hot weather.

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