The Safety Paradox and the challenge of health and safety assurance

I am currently working on a new book on practical health and safety assurance, which I hope to have out by the end of the year, but I recently came across an article published through LinkedIn entitled Six Mistakes H&S Managers Make with Occupational Health & Safety.

I do not want to comment on the article itself, although it is worth a read. It was the following paragraph that caught my attention, and goes to the heart of what I am trying to explore in the context of health and safety assurance.

Habits are what save us when our mind is not consciously on the job. Many of the health and safety systems we use (such as Take-5s, prestart talks, and health and safety observations) are aimed at creating habits in people’s minds so that they are constantly aware of hazards in the work environment, and can react when they see something that is about to hurt them. Each little action and health and safety discussion might not prevent an incident itself, but they all add together to create valuable health and safety habits. Do not think that you are repeating this training or talk for the millionth time and that you are wasting time and money. When the crisis hits it will probably be these repetitive sessions that will prevent great harm or loss.

First, let me explain what I mean by the Safety Paradox. The Safety Paradox is my theory that all health and safety initiatives have within them the potential to both improve and undermine safety, and one of the significant ways that safety initiatives undermine safety is by contributing to the Illusion of Safety.

The Illusion of Safety is characterised by the Gap between the safety system as we imagine it, and the system in practice, and it is often caused by activity: Because we are doing a lot of stuff for safety, it must all be good and positive and lead to a good safety outcome.

We know that not all safety initiatives are always good, and that safety initiatives can undermine safety.

Research into JHAs and other frontline risk assessment tools shows how they can disengage the workforce from the organisation’s health and safety message, but at the same time create an unfounded sense of comfort in management that workers have – and are using – appropriate tools to manage risk (See for example: D. Borys, Exploring risk awareness as a cultural approach to safety: Exposing the gap between work as imagined and work as actually performed).

The Baker Panel Review into the BP Texas City Refinery Explosion referred to “initiative overload”, identifying that many well intentioned safety initiatives may have overloaded refinery personnel to the detriment of safety.

To my mind, the assumption that we are doing something in the name of health and safety, and therefore it must be good and it must be achieving the purpose for which it is intended is one of the foundational building blocks for the Illusion of Safety, and must be challenged.

So, in this case when the author says:

Many of the health and safety systems we use (such as Take-5s, prestart talks, and health and safety observations) are aimed at creating habits in people’s minds so that they are constantly aware of hazards in the work environment, and can react when they see something that is about to hurt them

Health and safety assurance requires us to understand that this outcome, this purposecreating habits in people’s minds so that they are constantly aware of hazards in the work environmentis actually being achieved. The assumption that the purpose is being achieved flies in the face of the Safety Paradox, contributes to the Illusion of Safety and undermines safety and health in the workplace.

Health and safety assurance requires us to understand the potential negative outcomes of these safety activities. For example, to what extent does the constant requirement to fill out a piece of paper before every job (i.e. a Take – 5) desensitise the workforce to risk, trivialise risk or make the workforce think that management doesn’t trust them? To what extent does the workforce believe that these pre-job processes and signature collections are management’s attempt to, adopting the language of the Borys article above, “cover their arse”?

It is wholly insufficient for the safety industry to say that these safety initiatives are theoretically good processes, but not understand the potential negative outcomes nor to invest the time and energy to understand whether the safety initiatives are achieving their intended purposes.

And when the author goes on to say:

Do not think that you are repeating this training or talk for the millionth time and that you are wasting time and money. When the crisis hits it will probably be these repetitive sessions that will prevent great harm or loss.

surely there must be some onus to understand whether this thing that has been done for the “millionth time” is not having a negative effect? I can think of nothing more damaging for health and safety in the workplace than doing something for the “millionth time” and not knowing if it is achieving its purpose, or more damaging, undermining its intended purpose.

The safety industry must be accountable for its initiatives, and management must hold the safety industry accountable. It is simply unacceptable to continue to pump initiatives and processes into organisations on the theoretical assumption that they are “good” for safety without being able to demonstrate that those initiatives and processes are achieving the purpose which they were designed.

By the way, your injury rate performance is not a measure of whether your health and safety initiatives are achieving the purpose.

 

 

 

14 thoughts on “The Safety Paradox and the challenge of health and safety assurance

  1. Spot on Greg, So much is going on that undermines intent, even with the best intentions. As you say just because we are actively ‘doing’ something does not mean we are helping, in some cases from my experience what we deliver and the manner in which we deliver it is really doing more harm than good. Great topic for a book will be interesting to read.

  2. OK…so safety starts to include the complex topics like social psychology into the curriculum and many initiatives are created (as in deed they would be)…are we not making safety have to enforce more regulations (as there would be), which would only increase accountability for officers?

    Hence only further make more rules…which as we know it not good?

    1. Couldn’t agree more Greg. Great article.
      Nicely summed up too -injury rates are a significant distraction and too often paint an incomplete/ inaccurate picture of true safety performance / culture .

  3. Great article Greg.
    Although JSA/Take5 etc go some way towards mitigating risk they are like any other group activity prone to bias, groupthink and other social factors. Workers identify the risks they have seen before, that are “easy” to identify and we end up constantly addressing the “known knowns and unknowns” without getting close to the “unknown unknowns” which are the true cause of accidents. In highy dynamic work environments these tools are simply too static to address the evolving risks.

    As Wade mentioned neuroscience holds some of the answers here, I have been working with a psychologist developing ” attention recovery technique” training for workers – a ten second tool that can be used to help recognise and recover loss of attention.

      1. I know that. I was wondering if he could translate what it says. Cheers

  4. I agree Greg, if something is been done for the millionth time doesn’t mean it is improving or has reached the Safety “Nirvana” and in the context described I would be skeptical. I would assume the writer is accepting that all training is undertaken in ideal circumstances with ideal and engaged participants, unfortunately the day to day situation is markedly different. Generally, when mention of a Take 5s, JHAs or other pre-task tools are mentioned the workers disengage and take the view that this is purely an arse covering tools for the employer. On top of that they have been used as a disciplinary tool with the obvious consequences. Training, Take 5s and other pre-task tools are only as good as the culture of the organisation workers are employed in. From my experience few organisations have the right culture. My view is that the author of the paragraphs you quote may be a crusader rather than a pragmatist .

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