When the Safety Tool Becomes the Method
When institutionalized tools become enshrined in organizational culture, they are like concrete shoes, they seem to fit but the weight of the problem over time seems only good for getting us quicker to the bottom. What tools am I thinking of? Well, many of the tools we have accepted to measure safety or performance. For example, Bird’s or Heinrich’s Pyramid, Lost Time Injury data or Frequency of Injury data. This is partially driven by the thirst for measurement itself and personality types that desire realist materialist interpretations of the world. Unfortunately, the materialist attribution of validity to measurement is mostly self-perpetuating and becomes its own bind, creating a blinkered view of the safety world. However, in any human activity there is equally as many things that are not measureable and reside in the unconscious. And when the world of measurement and statistics, tools and mechanics doesn’t explain why people do as they do, more solutions are sought in the same measurement paradigm. Even when disciplines label their approach as ‘human factors’ they end up focusing on systems.
A tool such as Lost Time Injury (LTI) measurement, says much more about the toolmaker than the tool itself. All tools require a method of use, whether a hammer, telescope or statistic. Every method also ‘hides’ a methodology that is, the ideological design behind the purpose and meaning of the tool itself. Ellul (The Technological Society) called this ideological design ‘technique’ meaning, the values and ideology embedded in technology. This is why sometimes people wonder whether a person is controlling an iPhone or whether the iPhone controls them.
Once tools (and methods) have been institutionalized, they are rarely questioned, interrogated or subject to scrutiny and, when they are questioned, it is the scrutineer that is often made problematic, not the question. This is the case with many defective tools that have crept into the safety industry that we are unlikely to ever have the courage to erase.
The first thing we need to understand about tools is their bias, at the very foundation of collecting LTI data is an assumption that it is an indicator of something more than itself. LTIs in the safety industry have become the safety tool of choice for the safety trade. LTIs are now the unquestioned symbol of safety in many organisations. People then ‘attribute’ safety cultural value to such data despite the fact that it doesn’t indicate anything about safety culture. Indeed, trusting LTI data as a cultural measurement tool creates a blindness and distraction to real indicators of culture. So now, many safety people spend an excessive amount of time collecting data and reporting on material that has no safety cultural value. This is of course exacerbated by language that sets numerical goals to demonstrate safety success. When the language of such goals are anchored in fear by the legal profession we end up with a safety industry that is known for collecting and counting rather than an industry that walks, learns, listens and thinks critically.
Gigerenzer (Adaptive Thinking) addresses the issue of the tool and method and raises a host of factors that condition the attribution of objectivity to tool effectiveness. He shows how statistical thinking is shaped by social context and how social intelligence is critical to the interrogation and attribution of meaning to data. Sorry to disappoint but LTI data, the method of collection and the attribution of value to statistical data is highly subjective. Whilst such data is wonderfully seductive to the busy executive, its value for organizational culture is close to nil. So, if you get your LTI data down to zero does that mean you now have the perfect safety culture?
The only way to really escape the trap of the tool as the method is to take up more qualitative activities in safety work. It is such activities as walks, learning, listening, dialogue, considering uncertainties, conversations and critical thinking that are of much greater value to the development of a safer organisation. But for god sake, don’t then start measuring the number of times you do such things, let’s get beyond the measurement-only mindset to some sense of balance.