This time I would like to look at a rather difficult subject. A subject that I don’t really know what to do with and I have no immediate solution for. At least we can start by being aware of it, reflect a bit and maybe discuss. Who knows where it goes…

A Critical Comment? Thank You!

I am pleased that quite many readers of my book get in touch or drop a line. Some just to tell that they enjoy it or to say that they are happy to see that they are not alone in their thoughts. Some also take the time to discuss some subjects a bit more in-depth, or make the effort to comment critically on specific elements.

One of those is Iván Ciudad-Valls whom I have to thank as the main inspiration for this posting. He pointed me towards some things that I knew about, but had not considered while writing the following on page 44 of Safety Myth 101:

"As far as I know, nobody ever comes to work with the objective to do a bad job; getting up in the morning with a thought of "today I'm going to have me a nice little accident".

As Iván rightly points out the statement is too absolute. There I fell in my own trap. I did not follow my own rule: Do Not Use Absolutes (after all, many places in the book I argue against absolutes) and there you go. Of course I could try to talk me out of it (I did say "as far as I know") or some other excuse, but firstly, I am here to learn, so no excuses. Trial and error are often beneficial. Secondly, I do know actually that not everyone works to do a good job. Some do only a good enough job, or do just enough in order to stay under of off the radar. Dilbert’s Wally is a classic example of this attitude.

But things can be even worse. I cannot recall a Dilbert episode where Wally actually set out to create a proper accident (but do correct me if you know of one). We can assume that disengaged employees still are motivated enough to not have an accident. Even actively disengaged people like Wally probably want to get home in one piece after work…

A Wanted Accident

Iván, however, directed my attention towards some accidents in Spain where some cases have been of workers who themselves create ‘an accident’ to collect insurance - even going as far as amputating limbs. This may sound like the plot of a cheap crime drama or a run-of-the-mill episode of CSI with a semi-socially engaged tinge. Alas this is also the dramatic reality, and I have heard about similar events from other countries.

A news article that Iván forwarded (in Spanish, sorry) tells the story of a Slovak worker. He cut his own leg to collect 200.000 euros insurance, simulating a workplace accident. He was finally arrested by the police.

What has this to do with safety, some Safety Professionals may think. Wilful acts like these are of little interest for our profession. If someone is willing to hurt themselves, they will surely find a way. You cannot prevent them, and if the police gets them - good! 

I might have said the same a few years ago, but firstly I do think that employers and Safety Professionals do have a role and responsibility in these cases also. Secondly, the harm will not be restricted to the poor people who create this ‘accident’. Also colleagues who witness the event or injury will be affected and maybe traumatized. There is a clear responsibility in that. Thirdly, these cases of self-harm, difficult and dramatic as they may be can also teach us about what drives people and rationality.

Rational? This? Que?

People are often puzzled about the things others do. Things that are clearly illogical to them - like cutting off a limb. What many forget or are not aware of, however, is that the assumption that behaviour and logic/ratio are always connected is false. Also it is little understood that full rationality is merely an illusion. It has been written before, by me and others, and let’s just do it again because not everyone has understood the message yet: people act out of their local rationality, not out of some form of clinical logic.

In general, people do not break rules because they are stupid, or because they are bad people. Safety rules get broken, people do things and people do not pay attention because it makes sense to them at the time. Not because they are idiots or evil, but because of conflicting goals, because of circumstances, because they do not have all the information, because they get an overload of information, etc. 

Sadly this includes also the poor people who set out to harm themselves. In their local rationality this is the best way to provide for their families or whatever goal they strive for. For them it makes actually sense to sacrifice a limb or their health for money. Of course the problems that these people experience, and the things leading up to such a dramatic decision are much more complex than I can describe here or that I have competence of to discuss.

What To Do?

What can we do about these things as Safety Professionals? I seriously wonder. As I said in the start of this article, we can begin by acknowledging that these things can happen. Secondly, I suspect that some sectors and worker groups will be more susceptible than others, and if you notice something the very least would be that you have to raise the issue. Thirdly, if it were an ‘ordinary’ accident we were discussing here, we would probably look at opportunities to change the situation in order to change the local rationality. The same we could try in possible cases of self-harm of course.

There are definitely factors that are likely to be valid predictors for behaviour like this. I don’t know if there has been any research, but I would assume that cultural factors, people being underpaid or working under very bad circumstances are relevant.

I saw an example as a headline of a Norwegian newspaper earlier this week. The OHS Authority (Arbeidstilsynet) had found a case where eight foreign construction workers were forced to use the floor of a cellar as toilet. Under circumstances like these, who knows what people can be driven to...


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