Absolute Error Prevention

by Dr Rob Long on July 8, 2014 · 46 comments

in Risk Aversion,Robert Long,Zero Harm

Absolute Error Prevention

Dr Rob Long

Social Psychologist, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Absolute Error Prevention

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Absolute Error Prevention
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MACE, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.


Absolute Error Prevention

Absolute Error PreventionSafety is so easy, it’s all about error prevention. Safety is so simple, it’s all about risk aversion. Whilst both of these statements appear to be true, both are wrong. Safety is not simple and is not just about error prevention or risk aversion. Indeed, binary thinking associated with both these propositions is in fact dangerous. All risk and error is not bad. Again, the binary mindset that makes things black and white, distorts the thinking and language of safety people. For example, the binary thinking behind this question ‘how many people do you want to injure today?’ leads safety people to the absurdity of zero and a crazy ignorance of the psychology of goals. Let me give you some examples where error is not bad.

Forgetting and amnesia are not always bad, even though forgetting is projected as ‘bad error’. One of the good things about being human is we forget, just imagine if we could remember everything. There are plenty of errors in the past I certainly don’t wish to revisit. If humans were perfect just imagine all the data we could store, recall and use, surely that would be a good thing? I am quite happy that errors of the past are not held against me, it has allowed me to grow, learn and mature. This is the nature of forgiveness, meaning we no longer hold an error against someone. Forgetting makes for healthy marriages and relationships. So sometimes forgetting a ‘good error’. Sometimes it’s good to have faulty memory because it results in a positive outcome.

There are plenty of stories about some special humans who have had super memories, somewhat like Rainman. The famous story about Solomon Shereshevsky is one of them (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solomon_Shereshevsky ). However, there is a cost and by-product to having unlimited memory, perfect memory can’t forget. When we understand the psychology of goals we know that all goals have trade-offs and by-products. There are no goals set that are neutral, those who project the ideology of zero as a good goal, rarely talk about the by-products of such goal setting.

Too much memory impairs the mind’s ability to forget, causing trouble for relationships and forgiveness. Human relationships are often improved because we forget, there is no great advantage in being omnipotent (all powerful) or omniscient (all knowing). Yet, the quest for perfection is the ideology of zero. The closer one gets to perfection the more this limits adaptable behavior. As Gigerenzer states: ‘the sins of our memory seem to be ‘good errors’, that is, by-products of a system adapted to the demands of the environment’.

When we learn language we use trial and error all the time to learn how to listen and speak. The characteristics of a ‘good error’ is that the person is better off for having made that error. In language, we do this all the time. Sometimes mishear things or misuse words and quickly learn the right way to use the word by listening to another or by comparing or being told how to use a word correctly. In this way, every intelligent systems needs to make errors, making none would destroy the intelligence of the system. It would be a system that couldn’t learn.

It has been through the progress of error that we have had evolutionary maturation. When things are uncertain, sometimes trial and error learning or the precautionary principle are all we have. We take calculated risks but don’t ‘know’ the outcome. The logic of zero and perfection means not to take the risk.

As much as we would like to prevent our children from committing the same errors we have made, sometimes all the lectures in the world don’t help them ‘see’ any danger. Sometimes they have to ‘feel’ the same error to learn. I had a friend this week who told me about taking his 13 year old to Sydney, it was their first time in the big city. My friend was anxious for their child and gave them the obligatory lecture about all the dangers of being alone in Sydney with friends. Were they listening? Of course not, being a 13 year old human is quite special. Sometimes history repeats itself for someone else before they learn, you just hope for your children’s sake that the pain of that learning is redeemable.

Unfortunately, in safety, for all the best of intentions, all the talk of error prevention and risk aversion continues to take the focus off learning. Rather than ‘discern’ between real risk and unreal risk we have ended up with the most absurd dumb down approaches to risk aversion. The more we fill the airwaves with ‘zero’, the worse this trend will continue. The sector needs to talk less about risk aversion and error, and talk much more about learning.



  • Rob L

    Sorry Dr. Rob.

    You are right, I am not an expert in semiology – apologies should you have the impression that I inferred such. My understanding of the topic is limited to what I garnered exploring components of an OCW unit at Massachusetts Institute of Technology – Picasso’s Cubism: Politics and Semiosis.

  • Rob L

    I’m not parading expertise Dr. Rob. I’ve been quite clear on the limit of my knowledge, with no attempt to portray such as self-effacing.

    I have, rather, posed questions in an effort to understand and evolve with clarity. Since you are apparently part of the intelligentsia, thought to ask you these things.

    Sorry if my questions have touched a defensive nerve. It’s nothing personal; It’s the nexus of the assertions and the context within which you have formed ideas which I am more curious to learn from.

    Thank you for your contributions to discussion.

    • Rob Long

      Mate, you won’t go offline with these questions so I presume you want to continue to parade in this way in this media. For example: Why this projection of intelligentsia? A wonderful pejorative attribution, you don’t even know it when you assert social distancing. Are you making some deliberate attempt to just piss me off? As demonstrated before, your questions are personal and invasive, your style is self seeking to project knowledge rather than the limits of knowledge as there is no humility in your style. So please find some way of enquiry that is genuine and learning focused rather than this masquerade of expertise under the guise of interrogative questioning.

      • Rob L

        Dude. You talk about how people ‘haven’t got a clue’ and ‘know nothing’. such is a recurring theme. I asked if you could give some examples.

        Asked if you could share the topic of your PhD and it’s relationship to health and safety. Whether you worked at the Beaconsfield Mine in the 3-years before the tragedy, or whether it was in a different capacity – whether you saw that accident as ‘waiting to happen’. What your own visceral experience with risk has been – your books cited marriage as being one of your greatest, what have been some of the others which relate to work health and safety? I enjoyed reading your books by the way. I’d like to know more of your physical experiences, or whether the ideas are foremost observations of what others are perceived to do.

        Sorry if you are p’d by it all, The curiosity is sincere. Public assertions – why not clarify them on the same forum where such are made?

        I’ll desist from coming by here if you’d rather not give some good answers or seek to moderate the questions.

  • Rob Long

    Rob L, the logic of absolutes and the nature of semiotics means that zero discourse and ideology (much more than semantics) must drive to optimization of goals. This stands in direct contradiction to how humans make decisions and how semiotics shapes the mind. The nature of perfectionist goals and perfectionism that it drives is anti-human and anti-learning. Hugh White would know very little of semiotics but I dare say he might protest if you desecrated a military symbol. Far more complex than ‘is the aim toward zero a bad thing?’, is the aim towards any absolute a bad thing?

    • Rob L

      You know that Prof Hugh White knows little of semiotics because…..? Having studied philosophy at Melbourne and read at Oxford, I’d hazard a guess that he has more than a “little” understanding when it comes to the study of interpreting signs and symbols.

      • Rob long

        Mate, you have even less idea. You didn’t even know the nature of a phd in a previous post. Very few study semiotics and why white’s response it is clear he hadn’t studied the psychology of semiology and neither have you.

      • Rob Long

        Mate, I have met Hugh a few times, I did the National Security Culture Survey in 2009/2010, he’s a good fellow. He has a BPhil not DPhil and a BA (Hons) and by your quote (“Lets not get bogged-down in critiquing symbolic statements. Granted, symbolism isn’t everything. But it’s important”) clearly doesn’t have much expertise in the social psychology of semiotics. No matter, that is the nature of academia, I have no expertise in military strategy. If you want to count degrees or expertise, then start counting but please stop parading about with your silly questions and assertions. If you have a genuine discussion then go off line, who are you anyway?

  • Dave Collins

    Ok poor example but best I could do at short notice. My question is why do we have to even mention Zero Harm given the unconscious negative message it sends. On your mountain trips was the main goal “NOT TO DIE”? Is that how you market your adventures? For starters I would be too scared to go with you and if I did then I would be so focused on that and miss out totally on learning anything or enjoying the experience in the best and safest possible way.

    I just went away with the family for a few days and it meant a long drive – how freaked out would they be if I made us all wear zero harm Tshirts, did a 2 hour induction and made them complete a safe journey plan? Getting to our destination and having fun was the main goal, doing it safety was an obvious given that just didn’t need to be dwelled upon or kill the fun. I made a few mistakes in planning and delivery but I soon heard about it and we all learned something for next time.

    • Rod

      Love the analogy Dave- that sums up the current approach perfectly- sadly we are in the minority and swimming against a very strong tide

      • Dave Collins

        yeah mate – that is why we came up with the Potato Head concept – he comes to work knowing that risk is good but having to wear his different faces in order to keep his job but keeps “chipping” away (LOL) while his spud head counterparts continue to sing the praises of zero and swing their big sticks . He leaves those plastic bits at work and goes home and embraces risk with his family and friends, he gets the most out of his life and even becomes a little subversive!

        • Rod

          Yeah, I loved that too, its very much along the lines of what we have been advocating for the past 4 years. We will be presenting a paper at the Qld Safety in Mining Conference in Townsville in August titled “Is Compliance Killing Performance”? which I expect may upset a few people but you never know we may get a few to see the light

          • Dave Collins

            Tough gig mate. I went to a mining conference in NSW 25 years ago. The head of the Mine Safety Dept proposed a ladder/table system similar to the Rugby League where mines with the lowest LTIFR moved to the top of the table. I stuck my hand up and said that RL games are not won by the team who gets the least amount of penalties but rather those who score points by doing positive things – got howled down by the regulators and blank looks from the mine managers – guess I was just ahead of my time?

          • Rod

            Ironically what we will be presenting has a sporting theme, very much along the lines you have mentioned. I expect there will be quite a few opposed to it but the research is very sound and so I think we can win a few over and get the ball rolling in the opposite direction. Essentially we are asking employers to change their customer focus with the tools they use (i.e from the regulator to the front line worker)- the dyed in the wool compliance dudes will resist I suspect predominantly because they don’t know any different

          • Rob Long

            Hi again Rod, the psychology of compliance is very important.

          • Rod

            Not an area I’ve studied extensively Rob, but I suppose the Milgram experiment highlights that willingness to conform

      • Rob Long

        Rod, there are plenty on the journey and thousand’s in my network who ‘get it’ and seek to practice a more ‘sense-able’ approach to safety. There are now 3 groups doing the Post Grad and the momentum is booming. We meet outside of the likes of the SIA who don’t have a clue and are shrinking, lots of groups just getting on with it. I think the only way to really move the mountain is to subvert it.

        • Rod

          Good to hear Rob, hopefully we’ll play our part in that subversion when we present our paper in Qld in August – “Is compliance killing performance? ”
          I’m sure it will at least get the tongues wagging

  • Rob long

    Risks are taken constantly in health and safety. For example, the risk of excessive regulation results in more dangerous culture. Demonstrated by tick and flick and overconfidence in rationalist thinking. The risk of shrinking bureaucracy will result in an improved culture. The risks associated with punitive culture drives reporting underground, less transparency and greater deception.

    • Rod

      I agree whole heartedly Rob, my question is, how do we change this culture. The way I see it Organisations are only delivering to the regulator what the legislation requires. The more is better approach has permeated our thinking to the extent that we cant seem to leave anything out of safety material and so there is little scope for learning and we get the “tick and flick” mentality you mention. The reality is, the front line workers can see through this approach (butt covering) but are powerless to do anything about it and so tolerate it in order to retain their jobs.

      • Rob long

        Rod, it is possible to turn this around, I am helping organisations do it. Trouble is many want to but don’t know how, certainly the regulator has no idea and even their mindset gets undone in court. Much has to be unlearned but it takes courage to overcome fear.

        • Rob L

          I’ve heard Barry Sherriff and Michael Tooma present – eminently respected experts in Australian WHS law.

          From my interpretation of their teachings, the concept of butt-covering seems somewhat a falsehood. There is a bunch of common admin stuff done, which would not actually cover one’s butt in court, nor does it observingly improve safety performance.

          I wonder how many safety professionals have read Barry and Michael’s text on understanding WHS legal requirements. Have you guys had a chance to read them? After reading such, the rules and ways to implement such no longer seem quite as complex and onerous as some would makes us believe.

          “Certainly the regulator has no idea” – Any thoughts on the draft which the FSC plans to put-out with regard to SWMS? Thoughts on NOPSEMA?

          Interested to hear which organisation’s you are helping to turn things around Dr. Rob

          • Dave Collins

            there is a big difference between what the law actually requires and how safety people, companies, auditors etc interpret and react to those requirements – nowhere does the law say anything about absolute zero or volumes of paperwork

          • Rob L

            Thanks Dave.

            Thoughts thereby, on how the administrative stuff has evolved?

            Is the aim towards zero a bad thing? Or is it the methodology?

            Good example of a safety program with Zero in the heading – Vision Zero. I’ve spent some quality time in Sweden, the regulatory approach felt good.

            http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/14/nyregion/a-safety-plan-with-swedish-logic-and-city-smarts.html?_r=0

          • Dave Collins

            I don’t have a problem with not wanting people hurt but cant it go without saying? Its the unconscious message that concerns me – would i get on a plane emblazoned with “ZERO CRASH” – not likely – airline marketing people are smarter than that.

          • Rob L

            Sorry Dave. I’ve missed your key point.What is the “unconscious message” that, say, ‘Vision Zero’ sends?

            I remember Prof. Hugh White – eminent thinker on strategy (albeit foremost military) at the ANU once say “Lets not get bogged-down in critiquing symbolic statements. Granted, symbolism isn’t everything. But it’s important”.

          • Dave Collins

            My point exactly. Most people are intelligent enough to realize that there are very good legal, moral and financial reasons for people not getting hurt but if you keep spruking zero harm and telling me not to get hurt then acting a different way (profit and production and arse covering) then it wont take me long to figure out the real message. I guess its like telling your wife “I don’t hate you” instead of “I love you” – both technically mean the same thing in the rational world but what is her unconscious thinking going to be?

          • Rob L

            Not sure that “I don’t hate you” and “I love you” “technically mean the same thing”.

            I don’t wish to delve too much into the semantics, but are there rampant examples of where Zero goal/initiatives differ from the true intent of the message?

            Dr Rob wrote: “The logic of zero and perfection means not to take the risk.” There are countering examples to that assertion; numerous examples of where the goal is zero, but risks are taken along the way towards learning how to play the game safe – highly-skilled riggers, SCAT Medics, commercial divers etc…

            As for risk aversion. Can it be agreed that one may be more-so risk averse in some respects, and less so in others, even when completing a particular task. E.G. Dude may not check the lifting slings everyday for his Palfinger, but he won’t rig them along sharp edges or buy the known-poor lasting ones either.

            What are some examples of risks you guys will, and won’t take? How does your mind wheel start spinning when you have to make those decisions for others? As a mountain guide working from the Southern Alps to Alaska, Chamonix and in the Himalaya, it was a daily focus. Does it differ when you make decisions for others, that put you at risk as well? What about when you have to make the decision, but you will be nowhere near the risk if things go bad?

          • Rob Long

            Absolutely Dave, its all fear, mythology and mindlessness, the natural by-product of years of dumbing down the sector.

          • Dave Collins

            I often wonder if it is actually compliance that drives safety as much as some think it does. True it is often used as the big stick by many but most of my clients say that they only do safety the way they do because it is the way to win and keep major contracts. The odd fine or court case would be insignificant compared to losing a $100million contract?

          • Rod

            That’s true Dave, however if you ask many of the contracting organisations about adopting a different approach and even when you propose one, they will often reply, “yes I like it and it makes sense but we are bound by what the client wants” and more often than not the larger corporations will adopt the purely compliance route- very much rule based

          • Dave Collins

            Totally agree mate – but based on their interpretation of the rules! – where do the regs ask for a 2 day induction? Most would be happy if they could use the one SMP for all clients but they have to be rewritten for every client to suit their very different but often pedantic requirements – all to achieve the same outcome. Result is confusion, rework and disdain for safety. I’ve been on sites where there are 5 different work areas, 5 different sets of rules/procedures and 5 separate inductions required.

          • Rod

            Yep, absolutely, not sure if its a defence mechanism (i.e. Safety staff scared of losing perceived control) or what, but whatever it is, it is as you say creating disdain for safety, stifles innovation and learning and adds unnecessary costs to operations

          • Rod

            No Rob, haven’t read it but would like to, do you know where I can obtain a copy? , also the draft with regards SWMS from the FSC, do you know where I could obtain a copy.
            Most of our work is in the mining industry and currently working with an underground miner on a different approach using our Ultimate Mine Games (UMG’s)

          • Rob L

            Hi Rod:

            I found the Barry Sheriff text on the CCH website – http://www.cch.com.au/au/onlinestore/OnlineHome.aspx?TabIndex=0 .Last year, I did the Tafe OH&S Diploma, with a CCH text – Master Work Health and Safety Guide – being the prescribed text. I then went on to explore some of their other books.

            The FSC draft proposal for the new SWMS – An FSC guy showed me this when I was doing a short-term admin gig for a company undergoing FSC Accreditation. Sorry, I don’t have a copy or link to it. The old FSC SWMS fact sheet can however be found here: http://www.isis.com.au/media/50571/fsc_requirements_for_swms.pdf

            The draft proposal which I looked at differed from the previous fact sheet in that it gave the impression that the FSC knows that requiring workers to read columns-of-pages of hazard, risk and control are counter-productive and not necessary. Basically, FSC wants the SWMS to summarily demonstrate that a safe way of working has been found and that workers have been trained in those methods without an over-reliance on proof-through-having-been-read-and-signed.

          • Rob Long

            Rob L, I don’t share client information in public but I have in excess of 100 National and International clients from tier 1’s to small family companies.

          • Rob Long

            Rob L. The FSC has not idea either. Just more paperwork is all they care about.

          • Rob L

            I remember you critiquing the implementation of the FSC as a conspiring attempt by the Liberals to sideline the unions. Might you be aware that the FSC drafted the model WHS Act? That under this Act, union’s actually have more powers than previously OH&S legislation allowed.

            Can you give some samples of how the FSC has “not (sic) idea”?

          • Rob Long

            Mate, what do you think I do, I have met with the commissioner personally three times, have you? Thanks for the lecture on the ofsc, amazing.

          • Rob L

            Not sure what you do Dr. Rob. So apologies should I ask instead of presuming.

            Alan Edwards was great to, briefly, chat with.

          • Rob Long

            Mate, from the start you have been incredible, as the following entry demonstrates:
            ‘Then tell us more about yourself then Dr. Rob to give measure back to the supposed cynics.
            Am super curious about Beaconsfield. What was your role in Beaconsfield
            for the 3 years prior to the mine collapse? Paid or unpaid? Did you work
            at the mine or somewhere else? Your website has been authored to draw
            attention to how you were a Manager in the response centre there. Did
            you see that accident coming?
            What has been your actual on-the-ground, risking your own skin and bone experience with high risk work?
            What was the topic of your doctorate thesis? Was it related to safety? Does the thesis still hold?
            For how long, have you been a registered psychologist and what is the extent of your clinical experience?
            All the acronyms after your name, listed on your website – what do they
            mean. Which ones require assessment/qualifications? Which ones require
            paid or unpaid membership?
            These are not loaded, suspicious
            questions. Just keen to appreciate you for your experience that extends
            beyond the electronic page. Post your credentials openly and publicly.
            Let there be no question.’

            Your interrogative method is astounding, from someone who is a stranger, to someone who is in the public eye with plenty of detail about activities, qualifications, experience etc. Your questions above show that you don’t understand academia and that you carry some hidden agenda. I have invited you to carry this agenda off line on many occasions and you refuse to become known, hiding behind the Rob L thing in this medium.

            So you tell me you are not sure of what I do (there is so much on the Internet I find that astounding) and then presume in your questioning to know what I do. You then validate people in the academic arena far less qualified than I and then denigrate my expertise in the manner of questioning you undertake. What are you on about? What are you seeking to achieve? If you want to learn, then get a new approach because I’m not interested in game playing.

        • Rod

          I agree, we are facing similar issues with a number of our clients, who while they would like to try something different, continually get hung up on “but is it compliant”? whenever we offer an alternative. Even when its pointed out to them that providing employees with more material than any human can possibly comprehend and in a language/format that is not engaging or congruent with their conceptual system- not to mention the literacy issues, doesn’t seem to make much difference. There seems to be this head in the sand approach that so long as employees have indicated they have read and understood material by signing off on it that all is ok.
          The limiting nature of compliance seems to be preventing improved performance

          • Rob Long

            Rod, compliance thinking is actually minimalist thinking. It is so easy to be compliant and not manage risk. There are hundreds of companies buying templates to make themselves compliant but don’t have a clue about risk, and when you get to court compliance on paper means very little if it is out of sync with values and culture on site. The sector is so full of dumb down stuff, plenty of signatures on paper but not much cultural evidence of diligence.

          • Rod

            Couldn’t agree more Rob, did quite a bit of work around this with Professor Alma Whiteley and her book “Organisational Jazz” covers it extensively. Like you we have seen many organisations achieving certification in various safety standards but they use risk as a compliance tool instead of a forward looking problem solving tool.
            It is however very difficult to get many to change

    • Rob L

      Thoughts on implementing a no-fault system to counter the theory that punitive culture drives reporting underground?

      I have read, your discussion on the UK HSE system in the past. When recently doing my NEBOSH Diploma course, I was informed that In ’07/’08, the UK HSE reported a statistical spike relative to other years – 500,000 additional workplace injuries/illnesses were reported for the fiscal year. Thoughts on why this reporting increased?

  • Rob L

    Dr. Rob:

    I have heard a number of people state, as you do, that all risk and error is not bad.” But I haven’t seen such statements followed-up with examples of ‘good risk’ to worker health and safety.

    Can you give some examples of ‘good’ risk when it comes to worker health and safety at work?

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