safety-illustrationLeon from Occam’s Donkey alerted me to an article that was published in a recentScientific American on the impact that the language leaders use when referring to terrorism has on the perception of the general population.   For example, a metaphor of “law enforcement” triggers very different responses than a “war” metaphor.

The article starts with the sentence “How we characterise an issue affects how we think about it”.  This is perfectly illustrated by typical responses to occupational safety incidents.  Because people tend to classify these as ordered or simple problems, they apply ordered solutions i.e.  they create rules.

I found a perfect example of this in an article in the Mail & Guardian about a fatal accident at a mine in the Freestate.

The incident: “Six men attempted to lift the door, but it was too heavy for them to manage. It slipped from their grasp and fell on the man”.
The solution: “An inspection had recommended that the removal of doors and frames be stopped until a procedure outlining how this should be done in future was developed. He said the procedure should be drawn up by the end of the week”.
The problem: There are so many potential permutations in the way that accidents happen that if we had to create a procedure for each one, the rule book would become too thick to carry, never mind read.  Let’s face it, very few people will read it, and even fewer will change their behavior sustainably because of it.

We need to recognise that safety is a complex problem that cannot be solved with ordered, rule-based solutions only.  We need to look at it holistically, taking into account the behavioral and contextual aspects.  In essence we must treat it as the complex problem it is and probe it first to find the positive and negative patterns of behavior and the values driving them.  Attempting to address this problem with a new rule for each incident is like giving a band-aid to a cancer patient.