Within the Safety community there is some discussion going on about the ‘new’ and ‘old’ view on certain things. Some people seem to think that things are black and white and that it’s either one or the other. It must be stressed over and over again, however, that both views can be complementary and both have value - depending upon what element you want to focus on. A nice illustration of this occurred during the Learning Lab on Critical Thinking In Safety at Lund University in January 2016.

The Learning Lab took place at the Pufendorf Institute in Lund. The Institute is housed in a wonderful historical building. During a past upgrade some genius designer apparently thought it fit to put power outlets in the floor right behind the entrances of the big room where the Learning Lab was held (and liked the idea so much that he/she did this for all three the entrances!). Of course people needed power to feed their smart phones and iPads, so most of the time one or more charging cables were lying on the floor right behind the door.

As said, this example illustrates very nicely both the old view and the new view of safety - and that they go well together.

Old view: 

This situation provided a perfect empirical case for the (by some) much loathed safety pyramid. People had to get in and out of the room and stepped over the cables (which provided a clear tripping hazard that interestingly none of the safety folks in the room acted upon - including yours truly, because I was observing this experiment…) continuously. It was only the course leader, JB, who tripped once over the half-opened power outlet (but did not fall or hurt himself).

In traditional ‘Heinrichian’ language we can say that we observed many unsafe acts and one near-miss. I have to admit that I didn’t count the ratio, but then, the numbers are irrelevant and context dependent; it’s the idea that counts.

New view:

What we have here is a nice little example of more or less normal (they were safety professionals, after all) people making do with what there is. We all respected the fact that also the ones who were so unfortunate to sit too far away from the wall-mounted power outlets needed to charge their gadgets (ETTOing in a way) and figured we were careful enough to deal with the variability. Once JB tripped, he was resilient enough to catch himself.

So, who’s right?

Who really cares? One could even argue that we normalised deviance, operated clearly at the margin or one could make a case for situational awareness or some kind of safety culture. It all depends upon the narrative you chose - which was one of the main themes of the Learning Lab... It’s not so much a case of being right, but what analytical choices you make - and in the end what you want to use it for (hopefully improvement, or possibly using it as inspiration for a blog).


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