March/April this year I had the pleasure to attend the 2015 NVVK Conference - a great place to hear good presentations, expand the network and catch up with old friends and former colleagues. I also delivered a presentation on competence and professionalism.
The paper I wrote for this presentation has now been published in NVVK Info in an abbreviated version. The full 7000 word original version can be read here. Both versions are in Dutch language, please find a translation of the short version below:
Find it out by yourself? If only!
About Myths, Lack of Knowledge and Domain Blindness among Safety Professionals - and what to do about it.
Among others in practical working situations, during professional discussions (be it online or “live”) and during workshops/symposiums one regularly sees a significant lack of up to date professional knowledge/skill among safety professionals. There is a reluctance to take up a critical attitude with regard to certain established truths and practices. The same applies to professional development, to follow up on relevant literature or to look across borders.
Although the opportunities are better and easier than ever these days with internet, digital libraries and discussion forums, effects of this are often absent. Apparently many safety professionals don’t find things out by themselves after all.
Case 1: Is safety a religion?
Within safety there appears to exist a number of dogmas that you are not allowed to touch. Fiery and often emotional reactions are the direct consequence, often comparable to reactions from religious fundamentalists.
One example was after a little article that discussed the safety dogma “All Accidents Are Preventable” in a critical, but nuanced way [Busch, 2014]. A storm of reactions in various forums followed. Some of those particularly sharp and even hositle: “You are no real safety pro if you do not believe that...”. Attempts at discussion and logical reasoning were in vain; references to relevant professional literature was dismissed by “Stop reading and get practical experience”.
Case 2: Do we actually know our stuff?
Like any profession also safety owns a jargon of its own, often supplemented by principles from other sciences. The correct use of these is important, both when dealing with ‘lay persons’ as with professional peers. Incorrect use can lead to misunderstandings and thereby directly or indirectly lead to accidents.
Typical examples where rather basic professional principles are used wrongly, is the mixing up of terms like risk and hazard or things like “An accident has happened, we have to do a risk assessment to find out what caused it”. Often one finds examples of lack of logical thinking, mixing up causes and effects, or that one isn’t aware of the difference between causation and correlation.
Typical are long running debates about Heinrich’s work. Reactions are often highly polarized and lack foundation. Quite alarmingly hardly anyone (on both sides of these debates) has actually read Heinrich’s work.
Obviously it’s impossible that everyone can be a leader, but a certain level of competence is to be expected of professionals. A master carpenter will have clear expectations of the skills of another carpenter on his level. Why should this be different for safety professionals?
Why are things the way they are?
Hearsay and not developing further
Often there is little knowledge of recent developments in safety. A couple of possible reasons for this include:
- One doesn’t get the time. Some companies have a reluctant policy with regard to professional development of professional knowledge. This is not seen as ‘core business’ because it’s non-billable time. Professional development becomes then the Safety Professional’s responsibility.
- The Safety Professional doesn’t take the time: reading and following courses costs time, money and effort, as do critical thinking and taking part in discussions.
- Even if the opportunity is there one doesn’t look for further development. One is satisfied with the status quo and the level one is functioning at the moment and doesn’t see the benefit of further development, or one simply doesn’t know what one is missing.
One functions mainly on hearsay without knowing or understanding the basics. This leads to a simplified, superficial and therefore faulty understanding of simple concepts. But beware, behind simple concepts usually lies a more complex understanding of matters, something which many safety professionals lack. Regarding the confusion and misunderstandings it’s good to have knowledge of the original texts and to think about those in a critical way.
A typical example is the understanding of Heinrich’s pyramid [Heinrich, 1931]. “Industrial Accident Prevention” presents a ration between serious, less serious and near accidents. Some regard this 1 : 29 : 300 ratio (or a variation) as a law of nature and I once visited a seminar where one participant seriously concluded that “our numbers differ from the pyramid, so there must be something wrong with our reporting culture”. Heinrich himself, however, (and many studies after him) already said that there doesn’t exist an universal ratio, but specific per sector, company or even department and activity. (The conclusion with regard to the reporting culture may be right, the problem is with the ‘so’ in the middle as there is no causal connection).
An uncritical attitude
Well-intended principles are often simplified too far into known slogans like “Safety First” that they often achieve the opposite. Causes for this are most of all two factors:
1. People have a hard time keeping means and end or vision and goal apart.
The classic example of mixing up vision and goals are ‘zero accidents’ goals. Obviously nobody wants to have an accident, but ‘zero accidents’ as a goal is not realistic (you cannot control everything), frustrating (when an accident happens you haven’t made your goal and the metrics are ‘negative’ for the rest of the year) and not practical (accidents happen so infrequent that you cannot use them for proper steering).
2. A complacent and uncritical attitude that prevents people from thinking about what they are really saying and the meaning of what they are saying.
What is the value of a ‘Safety First’ slogan as soon as our actions show that we have other priorities? That only has to happen once to tackle the ‘safety first’ message. Isn’t it better to be realistic? Hollow slogans will in time undermine other good initiatives.
Oversimplification coupled to lack of understanding and knowledge leads to dumbing down, dogmatism and fundamentalism. This kind of black/white thinking is often to a “if you’re not with us, you are against us” attitude where one cannot see that it’s very well possible to be critical about certain concepts and slogans while at the same time striving for the same goal (i.c. improving safety).
Does this concern me?
Sometimes it seems that safety professionals are afraid to think ‘out of the box’ or come out of their comfort zones. One doesn’t see the importance of that what is unknown or of that what lies outside the immediate scope, for example within other sectors of industry. This leads to so-called domain blindness: one doesn’t recognize the importance of lessons elsewhere for the own situation. Nassim Taleb [Taleb, 2012] says that domain blindness is one of the most important elements that will make you fragile because you’re blind for outside risks and because you leave opportunities unused.
Between related subjects, like safety, environmental care or quality there sometimes appear to be impenetrable walls. Some appear to think that safety is a profession that is confined to a limited area, dealing with hard hazards and PPE. Since almost everything affects safety there are hardly any limits to it, meaning that an effective safety professional needs to have some knowledge about human behaviour, statistical understanding, organizational and management principles and so on.
Safety professionals often stick to experts and work too little with line management or people that actually know the working processes. One problem that may spring from this is that safety and production or safety and the primary processes grow to become two different things. This leads to undesired consequences and loss of effectiveness, especially when boosted by slogans that set safety apart from production. Safety isn’t an option that can be bolted onto the primary processes, but something that has to be integrated.
Are Safety Professionals used correctly?
Many organizations see safety as something obligatory with a primary focus on complying with rules and regulations. Safety is often seen in a very strict sense of ‘prevention of injuries’. This means that there are missed opportunities because safety should be seen as something that adds sustainable value to the results of the organization. This approach means that a safety profession not only must stick to (prevention of) injuries and accidents, but has to approach safety in the wider sense of for example ‘prevention and learning from unwanted events’ or even better ‘control of risks’. This will also help blurring the boundaries to other professions (quality, environmental care) or functions and roles (management) and the integration of safety in other processes and business objectives.
Many safety professionals therefor must get out of their comfort zones and (top) management must start using their safety professionals better. One problem is that many safety professionals and managers never learned to take on this attitude and that there aren’t any real incentives to change and behave that way either.
This is one of the most basic reasons why many safety professionals are stuck where they are in their development. Organizations that use their safety professionals in such a limited way will not see the importance of development. Personal professional development is very much dependent upon the environment. In this case: how mature is safety in the organization you are working in? Why bother about resilience if one is only interested in PPE and satisfying the regulator?
Conflict of Interests
This touches upon the ethical side of the safety profession. This is clearly the most dangerous reason that can stand in the way of professional development and critical thinking. There are various forms of conflicting interests, like:
- Commercial interests: there is this safety program we have to sell and this program in connected to (maybe even based on) certain slogans and ‘goals’.
- The ‘Sunk Cost’ effect: we have a management system or a safety program running which is coupled to these slogans or dogmas. So much effort, money and other resources have been invested in this that it’s hard to let it go, turn back or change direction.
- Social or political acceptability: especially loyalty with regard to managers, established contacts and/or clients (e.g. if one adopts a certain management system or safety program because the client has the same).
- For the sake of convenience: some of these slogan or dogma based systems offer managers an easy excuse to defer responsibility to employees. And also for safety professionals it’s much easier and more comfortable to call attention to the behavior of employees than to ask difficult (and possibly costly) questions with regard to design, maintenance or management.
- Other conflicts of interest: for example if the safety department is held responsible for the safety metrics. Then it can be tempting to tune the registrations in a certain way.
What can others do?
Professional organizations (e.g. NVVK, ASSE, etc) can advise and regulators can stipulate minimum requirements. Educations and courses have to explain safety principles properly and avoid slogans that simplify and ‘untrue truths’. Another element that must be spent enough time on is the correct execution of our profession: how to apporach the job, what attitude to take and how to contribute to the results of the organization.
It’s possible to formalize requirements with regard to updating and widening of professional competence through certification and registration. One risk connected to certification is that one often goes through the moves to fulfill requirements, choosing the easiest way, instead of doing what actually is necessary to fulfill the underlying goals of the requierements.
Life style advices given by governments and various organizations only work if we follow the advices OURSELVES. A regulator can forbid smoking at public places and print warning texts on packs of cigarettes, but it’s you who have to stop smoking, exercize and eat healthier. The very same applies to professional knowledge and skills: it’s a personal responsibility and life long learning and development.
Use the available sources!
These days we have more and easier access to information than ever before through internet, digital libraries, professional magazines and books. Online forums and professional groups are perfect spots to discuss issues and quickly get an answer, or get access to a document that we would have spent long time finding a few decades ago.
The internet can be a treasure trove of information, but regrettably also a swamp of disinformation. How can you find the correct information among this great variety of opinions? The abundance of sources enables testing against various (scientific) sources. Critical and logical thinking and discussing with peers also help separating nonsense and useful stuff. And finally, the litmus test of practical application must never be underestimated.
Scotosis [Spencer, 2012] a kind of cultivated collective blindness that is developed within certain groups to ward of knowledge that may disturb the way they perceive the world. The best remedy against scotosis is personal research of literature and theory, having an open mind for new influences, an open and critical attitude and testing things in the real world.
Attitude is probably the most important element. A continuous critical attitude and stance and critical thinking are among the most important job requirements for a safety professional. “Critical thinking requires knowledge” [Gigerenzer, 2013]. Besides knowledge it’s at least as important to question your beliefs every once in a while. So take active part in professional discussions, which not only means that you should talk, but especially listen.
Peers are one of the most important influences in our lives so it’s a wise thing to surround yourself with peers that can influence you in a positive way. It’s very important to look for a rich, inspiring and vivid professional environment with people from different backgrounds. It’s very important to interact not only with people who agree with you, but especially with people who disagree. Often one learns more from the contra-argument and discussion than from confirmation. One important precondition is that one discusses open minded. Even if you stick to your point of view you will have gained because the process will have given you a chance to reflect and review your point of view and arguments.
It’s also strongly recommended to find a mentor or a buddy who isn’t afraid to tell you the truth and can stimulate you to leave your comfort zone and explore new directions or get or in-depth knowledge in certain subjects. By the way, a mentor should never be regarded as a one way thing: the mentor gives the junior feedback, but the mentor at the same time gets feedback himself if the junior asks critical or curious questions.
Be curious and find the boundaries and cross them, both figuratively speaking as more literally. Don’t get stuck in occupational safety, but look at other domains. Also look across national borders: the possibilities are better than ever before. People on the other side of the world struggle with similar problems as you do and maybe even have found a solution. It’s surprising how locally spread some knowledge can be: friends in the USA knew relatively little about James Reason’s work while Dan Petersen was no part of the curriculum when I studied safety in the Netherlands.
If it’s no fun, nobody’s going to do any of this
All too often we encounter peers with a serious lack of humor: safety is serious business and there’s no way joking with that. Humor is regarded as being unprofessional.
In some cases humor may be inappropriate, but these will be exceptions. It’s actually possible to do serious things with a smile and often things will go easier too. Humor is important because it helps to stimulate creativity, lowers the threshold for self-criticism and increases the enjoyment of the job.
What can we mean to others in our profession?
It would definitely be helpful if our academics used more accessible language in scientific texts. “Robustness: the antonym of vulnerability” [Aven and Krohn, 2013] is written unnecessarily difficult. “Robustness is the opposite of vulnerability” is understood by anyone without checking a dictionary.
As peers we get better when we translate, summarize, clarify and share knowledge. Texts can be made more accessible by restricting professional jargon as much as possible, or by explaining what it’s about. There’s a danger for some that this may affect their status or even lead to loss of consulting hours. The greater good should make up for this.
Finally: as an experienced safety professional you should be open for rookies who come with questions or are clearly searching direction in discussions. Don’t patronize, don’t be snobby or arrogant and help your peers (This article would never been possible if it wasn’t for help from several respected colleagues, most of all Willem Top who commented extensively and critically on early drafts). We all started inexperienced at some point and it’s always nice to get help and not having to find out everything by yourself.
Aven T, Krohn BS. (2013) A new perspective on how to understand, assess and manage risk and the unforeseen. Reliability Engineering and System Safety 121: 1-10
Busch C. (2014) Myth busting - Episode: All Accidents Are Preventable. SafetyCary, juni 2014. Available from: URL: http://www.predictivesolutions.com/safetycary/myth-busting-all-accidents-are-preventable/ (visited 25 nov 2014)
Gigerenzer G. (2014) Risk Savvy. London, Penguin. ISBN 978 1846144745
Heinrich HW. (1931) Industrial Accident Prevention - A Scientific Approach. New York, McGraw-Hill
Spencer HW. (2012) Do You or Your Acquaintances Suffer From Scotosis? The Compass 2012. Available from: URL: http://www.asse.org/assets/1/7/HowardSpencerArticle.pdf (visited 25 nov 2014)
Taleb NN. (2012) Antifragile - Things That Gain from Disorder. London, Penguin. ISBN 978 0141038223