The “God Delusion” Of The Safety ProfessionMarch 22, 2013 No Comments
An equipment operator in the Canadian oil sands tells the story of being trapped in the cab of a burning haul truck. Determined not to die there, and despite the terrible realization that any escape attempt is going to involve burns, he kicks open the door, staggers across the deck of the truck and leaps twenty feet off the burning equipment. In the process he’s severely burned in the face, ears and hands, but is saved from further burns by his coveralls. We’ll leave him there and finish his story in a moment.
Did divine intervention save the day? Was his will to live the factor that saved him? Did the money and efforts invested by his employer pay off? Can we ever really determine how much of each made the difference?
Every day safety professionals and leaders work tirelessly to prevent just such events from occurring. But what if some of the basic assumptions we’ve been making were actually working against us without our even knowing? Have we been presuming too much?
Even the most devout believer in God would agree that presuming to be god-like is offensive. It implies the height of arrogance or folly. There’s the old joke about the person rudely pushing through the cafeteria line in heaven, “Oh that’s God, some days he thinks he’s a doctor.” Or think of those despotic leaders who drive their countries to ruin under such delusions.
The “God Delusion” of the Safety Profession refers not to a raging egotism, but rather to those assumptions that are taken for granted within the profession – assumptions that may actually mitigate against their own success. For example, thirty years ago the “conventional wisdom” for back pain was to rest in bed for two weeks, an assumption long since abandoned in favor of appropriate activity, following investigation to rule out significant disease.
It’s time to scrutinize other conventional wisdom that has dogged the profession for too many years, in particular that tired old chestnut “All accidents are preventable”. Has anyone uttered this with even a moment’s consideration of its potential negative impact?
To come to grips with that assertion, we need to examine how language creates and influences reality and the implications of uttering some of our favorite, yet clumsy, safety slogans.
Studies of language have shown that the richness or paucity of concepts within a language shape reality for its native speakers. Italian, for example, contains many more references to emotional states than does German. When a concept is not contained within the language it is simply not part of the reality of its’ speakers. So our stereotypes of the fiery, passionate Italian temperament or the cool, logical German temperament reflect what concepts those languages make available to their speakers.
The brain is literal. Attention goes where it’s directed. Since the unconscious does not process negation, we know that directives, safety or otherwise, cannot be delivered as negative statements. Try “not” to think about an elephant, or the color blue. Despite the directive to “not” think about them, the only way the brain can process that is to think about an elephant or the color blue. As the magician knows all too well, attention goes where it is directed both verbally and non- verbally. Telling a child “Don’t spill your milk” only brings spilt milk to mind and, not surprisingly, you know what happens next. Instead we have to say “Grip the glass firmly.” or “Hang onto the cup.” Imagine saying something silly like, “Don’t forget your safety equipment.” Well, you get the picture.
The real “juice” in communication is in the non-verbals, in the face, the gestures and other body movements. But let’s focus on the verbal aspects of how we direct attention inappropriately in safety situations through the invocation of a phenomenon known as “presuppositions”.
A presupposition is a phrase with an embedded assumption. When someone approaches and I say “Can I help you?” it presupposes that I am the helper, that she is helpless, and that I am in charge of the helping process. As soon as she utters a single syllable in response, at the unconscious level she’s “bought into” this relationship of dependency. I’ve just created a dependent worker, or client or child. It’s much better to simply say, “What’s up?” – no presupposition of dependency implied.
So off-putting is the “Can I help you?” comment to retail customers, to have to depend on the store clerk, that retail has changed that presupposition to one you’ve heard so many times you’re sick of it – “Are you finding everything you need today?” Now “you’re” finding it, not just some things but “everything” and not just stuff you want but things you “need” – clever, albeit overused.
Occupational safety is unfortunately loaded with such well meaning but clumsy use of language – these negative presuppositions. For example “Safety is Job 1.” Of course it’s not. But when you use an ordinal reference like “1”, then other concerns such as production, service, quality, or environment, must necessarily be further down the numerical order, number 2, 17, 35 or 64. Then when you ask someone to focus on production, you know the response you’re going to get – “Well obviously you don’t believe in safety.” Now conflict has been opened up and the credibility of the leader to apply future influence begins to erode. Consider saying, “Around here safety, production, service, quality and environment are all important and we have to balance them appropriately.”
Or take that other stinker “Is it safe?” It’s a one-way ticket to conflict in the workplace. Because it contains the verb “is” from “to be”, there are only two
choices, either you “are” or you “aren’t”. So linguistically there can only be two answers, “yes” or “no”. Yet there is no safety decision in the world that’s yes or no. Every safety decision at work or at home is a business decision that balances Cost, Risk and Benefit. Direct attention appropriately by asking “Have you done a risk assessment?” or, “Is the risk acceptable?” or, “What does a cost- benefit analysis say about the effectiveness of the various proposed solutions?”
When you ask “Is it safe?” you engage risk perception and opinion, but not risk assessment.
Let’s say a worker, in previous jobs and at home, has been up and down ladders thousands of times. Seldom did they get someone to hold the base. They knew enough to position the base in relation to the height, how to do a leg lock on the ladder, how to maintain three point contact and how to maintain a center of balance. In all those real world exposures they learned that they can do this safely without someone holding the base. Then they go to work for an employer whose rule is to have the base held. One day they walk half way across the plant to do a brief job but forget to bring someone to hold the base. Eager to get the job done, up they scamper, do the job and descend just as a supervisor rounds the corner and asks, ” Is that safe?” Now the supervisor opened up a Pandora’s box of opinion, which can never be wrong. The worker considers all their life experience (because attention goes where it’s directed) and they say, “Yes, it is.” The response? “That’ll be three days off without pay.” And you can kiss future cooperation goodbye when punishment is associated with what was thought to be acting safely.
Which returns us to the worker peering down from atop the ladder. Instead of asking that rhetorical question that ultimately undercuts your authority, say, “That violates our standard and it’s not forgivable. There’s a consequence.” Stay away from invoking opinions about “safety-ness”. It’s an opinion trap. We manage performance, not opinion or attitudes.
Keep in mind that “we get the people we deserve” as leaders and as parents because we are constantly shaping the reality of how people experience us and the organization through the ways that we communicate both verbally and non- verbally.
Well that brings us to the grand daddy of all presuppositions: All accidents are preventable.
If that ‘s indeed true, it presupposes that we must be in control of every internal factor – state of mind, attention direction, motivation or attitude – within every individual performer. It also assumes we must be in control of every external factor – weather, environment, equipment, traffic design – in all circumstances. In other words, here it comes, we must be God, or at the very least god-like. And although most of the workplace environment is indeed available to our control, the internal workings of the human element are not, for one important reason – we do not have permission in the workplace to fool around in people’s heads. We do when they willingly come to counseling or coaching, but not otherwise.
In the perfect, god-like hindsight of investigations we actually begin to believe our delusion. If perfect hindsight allowed us perfect foresight to control all variables then maybe that would be true. But it’s not.
With environmental and equipment design factors, that hindsight has served us well and continues to do so. Yet in the area of human performance it simply has not worked. And even in terms of process controls, although hindsight has been successful to a point, many in the workplace now suggest that we may have gone too far, overproducing procedures, guards and personal protective equipment to the point where people actually struggle to get the work done. A recent parliamentary address in the United Kingdom specifically expressed concern regarding health and safety standards.
The real problem with “all accidents are preventable” is blame. If the statement is true and an accident occurs, most people tend to assume “Then I must be to blame.” And people who feel blamed are no longer in a resourceful state to contribute, to be open and honest in investigations, or to freely offer cooperation going forward.
So let’s return to our burned operator in the oil sands. When repeatedly questioned in the investigation, what else could you have to done to prevent this, he admits that at that point he felt like he should have just stayed in the cab and accepted his fate. That’s surely not the goal of our well-intentioned investigations.
Consider also that workers know all too well that instead of all accidents being preventable, “s#*t happens”. Despite our best attempts to control everything, we simply don’t have that god-like power. Things will fail, errors will be made. In fact an absence of errors generally indicates an absence of learning and growth. Whenever a leader asserts “all accidents are preventable” their credibility suffers because the statement flies in the face of the workers’ experience of reality. When credibility suffers, the power to positively influence diminishes.
Clearly the sector that offers the best of safety records, and has avoided the “blame” response, is aviation. Pilots and flight crews freely admit errors, creating a culture that encourages the learning needed to prevent them in the future.
Consider culture as a set of behaviors that a specific group has come to think of as normal. Despite claims that “we’re not looking for blame” (Don’t think about an elephant), most organizations haven’t come close to what aviation has achieved. To change culture is not some mysterious secret, we simply start by changing our standards for acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, specifically regarding blame and consequence.
The best application of our professional “god-ness” is to apply the principle of forgiveness. Let’s make those few “deadly sins”, the ones that regulators won’t tolerate violations of, severely punishable as we do with theft in the workplace. But make everything else forgivable. S#*t happens. Errors occur. Without errors there is no learning. Forgiveness brings honesty, learning, and progress towards injury reduction.
Organization leaders and Safety Professionals need the courage to challenge conventional wisdom and to use language professionally. Stop saying all accidents are preventable. Commit instead to lowering risk to acceptable levels, reducing frequency and severity of incidents, accepting error as part of the human condition, and finding the grace of forgiveness.
Gary Phillips, the author of this article, lives in Thunder Bay Ontario. Gary is a Canadian Registered Safety Professional (CRS), a Certified Human Resource Professional (CHRP), MA, and a Master Licensed Trainer in the field of NeuroLinguistic Programming. For the last 30 years Gary has serviced consulting clients across Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia. In 2008 he published “The Art of Safety“. His email address is – firstname.lastname@example.org
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