Health and safety philosophy for ‘power hour’

Health and safety philosophy has to stretch to underpin Sheq management, from behaviour to corporate governance. Eskom gives us pause for thought.

We are lured out of our offices and filing cabinets to think and braai in ‘power hour’, since stage two under-service resumed in 2015.

We gather at trees and lapas, and meet other bureaucratic types such as quality, human resources, lawyers, training, emergency, security, and assorted managers (the latter also known by the OHS Act section numbers of their OHS appointments).

We saw some of these people six years ago when Eskom first asked for budget equity with SAA and SABC. Most of them studied some psychology and statistics, the great equalisers, so we skip health and safety law, regulation, research, training, metrics, reporting, closeouts, and such functions that are common cause to everyone’s functions and standard operating procedures (SOPs).

We move straight from wood and charcoal to the root causes and effects of health and safety performance; behaviour, motivation, leadership (what miners name visible felt leadership, VFL), and the difficulty of moving national culture towards caring and sharing.

From applied psychology, it is a small step to the sister and mother of all sciences, statistics and philosophy. That is when these pure psychologists (as opposed to us ‘applied’, or BBS psychologists) unpack the trees, cats, and swans. For example.

Health and safety near misses and peer pressure
If a near miss is not recorded, is it still a near miss? For example a tree falling in a Russian forest, and Heisenberg’s cat in a box in the mail with a label reading ‘Fragile, poison vial, keep upright’.

Does the tree fall or not fall if it is unobserved (also known as the night shift effect). Is the cat alive or dead, in any period longer than a Post Office strike, but before the box is opened? If the cat is alive, is that a near miss based on frequency?

If all loss incidents are directly due to human factors, except for two percent attributed to acts of God, another unknown percentage attributed to holes in rotating slices of Swiss cheese, and an equal percentage to the Domino effect; then all swans are white except a certain ad hoc Australian species.

Disaster case studies reveal how managements steer at the edge of the health and safety risk envelope, a trick they learned from adjusting salaries at the level of an acceptable staff turnover, also known as recruitment tolerance. The wisdom of hindsight is as reliable as peer pressure.

A peer is anyone who agrees with everything you say. Peer review is a process of confirming that we are all right, and other views are uninformed and unscientific, in the rigorous definitions of Danny van Zyl (, 2015). An interview is a process to confirm that the interviewer still knows more than the candidate.

Cultural benchmarking is checking whether we could borrow language from Benjamin Franklin or Martin Luther King, in the definition of Mabila Mathebula (, 2014).

Health and safety is for sharing, so we must encourage other departments to share their views on how they make it work. A fire and a pot are good catalystis for philosophy, especially during load shedding.

Risk tolerance assessment
Health and safety behaviour is like the uncertainty principle, but still calculable. Just define social tolerance, multiplied by management’s subconscious tolerane of severity, multiplied by the currently tolerated exposure frequency, multiplied by the probability of state inspection or a head office social visit, multiplied by local labour risk tolerance.

Most of the above numbers are smaller than one, and sustained for a few days after a major incident, so attitudes fluctuate. We have to step back from the behavioural forest to separate motivations from values, and connect the dots to root causes.

The risk tolerance formula requires fuzzy logic. It is an art, not a science, as the health and safety trainers say. Not even mainframe artificial intelligence (AI) robots could calculate that. So we hire astronauts, drivers, and other people instead.

Employees always know, by a process of extra-sensory perception (ESP, or the change-house boy, or the boss’ personal secretary, or the night shift supervisor, or the real number of injuries) what the company expect them to do.

From the memo board we know how to pay ritual lip service to slogans such as safety first, zero harm, zebra, meerkat, elephant, and watch for crocodiles. Ostriches are never mentioned, they had a bad press.

Sheq philosophers convention BBQ
When just us Sheq people meet for wors and pap (a code name for pap and wors with drinks, among utility service workers such as power distribution, telecoms, rail, water, and waste), or to secure the fireplace, we talk about the perpetual battle to integrate interdisciplinary systems and technology.

And about how to get health and safety modules into management, engineering, and trades curricula from high school up; how to measure more predictive factors; how to get management to focus on leadership and cultural elements instead of employment contracts and results.

And we talk about why we run different systems (also known by ISO numbers), reports, and external audits for health, hygiene, wellness, safety, quality, compliance, IT, security, energy, waste, food and beverage, and King III, while our internal auditors do it all in a day’s work.

Except financial audits of course. Management and financial managers will never integrate that with anything, nor ‘bastardise’ pure risk with operational risk, as one of the bureaucratic types said during Eskom social hour.

Root causes of operational risk
Inevitably we arrive at root causes. Why does civilisation still engineer disasters such as Chernobyl, and health care waste dumping, and state utilities. And what therapy do health and safety practitioners need to understand the limits of our toolbox talk of Sheq and cultural things.

How do we cut this elephant in the room into edible chunks. Where are those lines in the sand between us and HR, us and managerial leadership, OHS behaviour, discipline, and sabotage.

Why are some pracititoners of the art of health and safety, in therapy for taking our jobs in the corporate conscience department, and recording corporate defence mechanisms (known as ‘rationalisations’ in psychology), too seriously.

If we reach stage three load-shedding, going home early would become standard ‘unserviced’ or dis-utility response procedure. Then we would also get to meet the neighbours we have not seen for five years again.

At least until election season, when the lights and PCs will be on, and health and safety philosophy would retreat from braai ritual to their customary place in the filing cabinet of private conscience.

• Edmond Furter is the editor of, and a book editor serving authors and researchers in the humanities and cultural fields.

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2 thoughts on “Health and safety philosophy for ‘power hour’

  1. Had to actually read it all through a second time before my ‘power’ deprived brain cells made sense of it all. Sounds like you were having a bad day ?

    ==== Editor notes; It was a great braai, and a rare treat to hear some health and safety theories from other departments. We should encourage ethical thought, not political correctness. Safety is for sharing. The pot is ready for the next unscheduled unserviced event!

  2. Well put Mr. Furter, the problem is that 20% might understand the other 80% are awaiting the proverbial “Wave” to get a ride and don’t understand why they took that wave in the first place?

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