Delphic motherhood statements part 2 – safety documents that nobody can understand

A little while ago I did a post looking at the complexity of documented safety management systems, and the role that documentation has played in undermining effective safety management. You can review the post here.

I was recently sent an article (you can access it here) which underscores the potential negative impact safety documentation has on safety performance.

The New Zealand research found that:

  • Two thirds of employees did not fully understand information contained in health and safety documents , including safety procedures;
  • 80% of employees were not able to accurately complete hazard report forms; and
  • Safety documents were highly complex and used vocabulary that employees did not understand.

A fascinating aspect of the research is that it provides a list of words that were unfamiliar and confused employees. Some of those words included “significant hazards” , “competence”, “accountabilities” and “not adversely affect”. All words that reflect the requirements of legislation and guidance material but have little place in the day to day comprehension of workers.

From my own perspective, I have to say that this research is entirely consistent with my study of major accident events going back 30 years. Every major accident events enquiry that I have ever researched has identified that in some way the documented safety management systems undermine effective safety performance. Typically they are too complex for the people who have to implement them to understand.

Based on my experience I would add two further phrases to the list of unfamiliar words: ” reasonably practicable” and “root cause”. These two phrases are ubiquitous throughout safety management documents in Australia, yet universally whenever I am conducting obligations or investigation training there is no common (much less “correct”) understanding of what these things mean.

There are two things that I find professionally embarrassing as a person who has spent the last two decades specialising in safety and health management . The first is our continued reliance on lost time injury data as a measure of safety performance in light of the overwhelming evidence that they add no value to our understanding of the management of risk.

The second is , despite at least 30 years of “reminders” that out documented safety processes add little to the management of safety risks, almost universally we continue to do the same thing, in the same way but somehow expect a different. I think Einstein had something to say about that.

I have recently been working with a senior executive in an organisation who confronted a safety consultant with the following:

“if you can’t explain it to me easily, then you don’t understand it yourself “

An interesting test to apply to our safety documents?

2 thoughts on “Delphic motherhood statements part 2 – safety documents that nobody can understand

  1. Greg, – agree wholeheartedly. One aspect of this I have focussed on is the degree to which organisations seem to get signficant peace of mind from seeing a wad of paper with lots of words in a Manual on a shelf. Documentation is there to describe what you do and how you do it. Too many organisations don’t ‘do’ OHS actively so the defualt, fallback position is to ‘get some words’. This study shows that the words aren’t much good either. Untill organisations truly understand that OHS is a verb (not literally) then the words will be meaningless to the bosses as well as the workers. OHS is about the understanding that safe workeres produce more for longer. Its called sunstainability. A simple fact of good, pragmatic Capitalis in my Manual. Rgds

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