Some organisations practice petty health and safety myths or numbers games. If your employer does, be afraid.
A school in Sydney had banned children from doing cartwheels and handstands in the playground, to avoid injuries and other consequences. We have all heard similar stories around the world.
A school in the UK has a tandem rocking horse, but do not allow children near it in the name of safety. What if a child fell off?
My wife and I facilitated Leading Safety Indicators workshop for the International Council of Mining and Metals (ICMM) in London. While rummaging among antiques in Portobello Road, it started to rain and the crowd stepped onto the pavement, but store owners chased us off.
It was a ‘health and safety risk’ to stand on the stoop in the rain! Actually, they did not want us to block the store entrance signage.
Many unrelated things are done in the name of health and safety, adding to the myths and falsehoods it seems too accumulate.
Some BBS is health and safety myth
Much health and safety lore or legend, has its etiology in the flawed thinking around Behaviour Based Safety (BBS) and Accident Causation.
We have all heard the health and safety myth that ‘up to 98% of accidents are due to unsafe acts or conditions’. This magic number, dishonestly promoted by some consultants who know better, leads to a maze of confusion.
If we reduce unsafe acts, whatever these might be, then ‘accidents’ would stop, or so it seems in common sense.
The next step is even more concerning. It is about the last decade’s obsessive focus on the word ‘zero’. You may have heard of ZIP, ZAP, ZOP, and Zero Harm programs. Many consultants and employers promote the Zero mentality.
In my view it must be the objective, and systems /practices must be designed to minimise the likelihood of injury to anybody entering or participating in a workplace. But we must also acknowledge that despite our best efforts, accidents do happen.
We set out with the intention to not cause harm, so we have a zero harm vision, but this is different to measuring against a cognitive frame.
We tour on vacation with a zero harm vision, but some tourists do get killed, and many get injured, in numbers so predictable that the insurance industry is based on it.
No road environment in the world has achieved a zero sum outcome, despite the trillions that have been spent. In your heart and your head you know this. Yet for some reason we get pulled and dragged into this Zero Sum Game.
When an accident happens the response is almost rabid to find an “unsafe act” and actor to blame it on. Rarely are the likely underlying factors, and there are always several, ever located or managed.
It is far easier to count bodies, and find an “act” or two that can be pinned on an underling; the Underling Factor, instead of the Underlying Cause. It is easy to point at someone rather than management.
For underlying causes, look up to management
When a safety incident occurs the first reaction should to be look up not down. The response is always aggressive becuase management likes a picture, preferbaly not the real one.
For a start, there is the impact that an accident might have on metrics. In organisations that use reductionist metrics such as incident numbers, LTIFR, MTIFR, etc, we see ludicrous efforts to hide incidents and fabricate numbers downward towards Zero.
I was conducting a Safety Culture Review of a mine site in North Queensland, Australia. On entering a lunch room I came across half a dozen guys playing cards, the ones medically certified fit for light duty.
Standard practice was to put these people anywhere, so they are “at work” but not at risk, and contributing positively toward the famous zero!
I was attending a meeting of senior leaders of a large multinational in the USA. The Safety Director received a phone call and left. Given that this organisation had flown me halfway across the world to assist them with creative and effective safety initiatives, his presence was critical.
But he was doing an urgent function; a worker on another site had suffered a laceration and was on his way to the doctor. The director sped to the doctor to ensure that the worker was not booked off work.
It would not look good on the Monthly Zero Report (that’s what they actually called it). What is motivating the Safety Director, is nothing to do with the clinical care of employees. It was a numbers game, and workers knew that.
The triangle myth
Another myth that has become embedded in misunderstandings of safety is the “magic triangle” that suggests that for every given number of unsafe acts, there is a contribution toward a give number of injuries, which in turn contribute to a set number of fatalities.
The Heinrich or Bird Triangle is as unreal as a rabbit hatching from an egg in a hat. I had a call from a global president in manufacturing to tell me that his board had a presentation about the relationship between observations, unsafe acts, and poor safety performance.
He was questioned on why his division was not reporting safety data aligned to the numbers of the assumption. If the numbers did not align with the model, there was ‘a problem with the system’!
What an absolute lot of fluff. Top management over 50 000 employees wasted oxygen on statistical fabrications. An infusion of junk science tried to give credibility to Heinrich’s books, and to common sense, and is even praised for saving lives.
The correlation myth
There is scientific evidence that storks are involved in the delivery of babies, particularly in Germany. In the journal of Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology 2004, Vol18, pp 88-92, Thomas Hofera reports a correlation between the number of babies born at home, and the number of storks seen there.
You have to exclude babies born in hospitals, and as there are no storks there. Storks and babies declined between 1970 and 2000, and recovered between 1975 and 1990. The mathematical correlation was quite significant.
Before World War 2, Gustav Fischer published his stork observations in Copenhagen. The city had records of the annual number of storks nesting in the city, and the annual number of babies born.
If you question the assumption of a direct cause, you must dismiss some of the assumed causes and effects ascribed to the health and safety incident triangle, LTIFR, Zero, and other health and safety myths and numbers games.
Let’s get real.
• David G Broadbent is a safety psychologist and founder of TransformationalSafety.Com. This is an edited version of his circular.
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