Is Safety a Choice You Make?

safety first be carefulOne of the things safety seems good at doing is developing illogical slogans and sayings. Some examples are: ‘all accidents are preventable’ and ‘safety is no accident’. The trouble is what we say affects the thinking of others and sets cultural agenda. Half of this silly stuff comes from people misunderstanding hindsight bias or not understanding the trajectory of what they are saying. The fact of the matter is that humans have unlimited hindsight but limited foresight. All accidents are only preventable if you can see into the future, have a crystal ball or are god. All information and resources are not available to humans to make decisions. Decisions are made within constraints like fallibility and a range of ‘bounded’ ways humans operate. Humans simply cannot optimize, we forget things, we have limited memory and limited perception. So, talk as if humans have unlimited rationality and can read into the future is just safety nonsense and a distraction from engaging with others. The words we use have influence and a trajectory, they take us somewhere. If the outcome of our words is the promotion of a blaming culture, then don’t speak those words. Many of these sayings are convenient distortions used to blame others and project the superiority of the speaker.

Another of these sayings is ‘safety is a choice you make’. Many of the events, incidents and things that happen to us have no element of choice at all. That’s why humans speak so often of luck and fortune. We know we should have had an accident but we didn’t. The odds were against us to lose but we won.

So, if safety is a choice then unsafety must also be a choice. This idea supposes that people want to be unsafe and choose to be unsafe. It totally misunderstands the way humans make decisions and projects blame for all accidents, mistakes and circumstances. So if safety is a choice we make, did everyone on MH17 make a choice to be unsafe? No-one had an idea they were on a plane that was unsafe. As unfortunate as tragedies are, they are not helped by language that tells people after the event that it was preventable.

Humans have limited rationality and cannot see into the future and in most cases make choices that at the time, seem safe and as circumstances change become unsafe. Telling people that safety is a choice tells others that when things go wrong they are to blame, unsafety is their choice. So we just don’t need to talk these nonsense slogans and realize that our talk matters and shapes safety culture.

Most of our decision making is not shaped by rational choice. Many of our decisions are made in the unconscious, are made emotionally, shaped by social circumstance or a host of factors that are completely out of our control. So whilst we do our best within the limitations of what we know, we are not infallible, omnipotent (all powerful) or omniscient (all knowing). If safety is all about my control then I must be to blame when something get’s out of control. How can someone do an sense-able incident investigation with such a silly slogan in their head ‘ safety is a choice you make’. This is why we use the word ‘accident’ to explain an unfortunate circumstance where no one or thing is at fault. Insurance companies call many unexplained unsafe conditions ‘acts of god’ for good reason.

The truth is, in many circumstances we don’t know why something became unsafe, we don’t know why people make snap decisions, we don’t know why some things fail, we don’t know why people have brain snaps, we don’t know why or how a substance or moment will affect choice, we can’t read the minds of others and we don’t know when things will happen. One things we do know is that we keep circulating nonsense sayings through the safety industry we will continue to get under reporting, blaming and project meaning on to actions that are totally biased.

So, lets use words and saying that do not project blame, don’t drive reporting underground and don’t set the culture of work up for failure. We don’t need to talk about zero harm, or safety first, or whatever priority. How about we talk more about caring for each other, having conversations about risk at work without blame and seeking out opportunities for positive learning.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
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.

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  • Jack

    Dr. Said we are limited which is true in many spheres of life. Signs and slogans are meant to complement other safety strategies and are not efficient on their own. We are not omnisient but with information and experience we can foresee harm, slogans stir us to act with safety in mind. What I’m saying is safety is a multi-pronged issue an there is and will never be a straight forward, simplistic solution. Think
    Engineering controls, administrative control and behavioural strategy for safety

    • Rob Long

      Jack, understand the need for complementary messages but not illogical messages especially when the outcome is the creating of a climate and culture of blame and projected fault because of failed choice. Whilst we may get some sense of what may be harmful, we certainly cannot predict it or forsee much of it. Yes I I agree thinmgs are rarely straight forward or simplistic which is why we don’t need to use such misleading slogans as ‘safety is the choice you make’.

  • Allen L.

    Dr. Rob . . . You hit a a very raw nerve . . . .

    It is just so much easier to blame the operator or user! Putting up a sign (or writing a procedure) is cheaper than analyzing the process, equipment, or facility design via engineering. Use a slogan, write a procedure that is 5 miles long, and make the user/operator compensate for poor engineering and design flaws. If the procedure was not adhered to, we need another procedure and a better slogan. It is just that simple. (Seriously, years ago, when I identified that crane maintenance was not being performed, the assigned NASA safety engineer told they should write another procedure telling folks to follow the original procedure.)

    If you want to divert blame, deny that an omission of a critical design feature is not an engineering failure ( . . . Failure to disengage the accelerator when the brake is pushed is not a design flaw according to an unnamed motor vehicle company)

  • SeekingHSE

    Great article Rob. Will be saving to forward to others.

    I’d like to bet the least liked words heard by anyone “in safety” is the… “we’ve always done it that way” or “its always been that way”. Maybe some parts of the profession (without realising it) suffer from this too.
    I remember 25+ years ago, my father coming home from offshore rigs with “All accidents are preventable” on his shirt, probably wondering what it really meant. Then explaining every now and again that someone had an accident and got hurt, that’s why we didn’t get the hamper or award this month or quarter. Then I sat in safety meetings for many years listening to that mantra…….then review the accidents we had on the rig for the week. About time we get back to reality, not live with the luxury of hindsight bias to prove the mantra (after the fact!), accept accidents will occur and try to foresee where this may happen, focus on risk and learning from our inevitable errors.

    I’d like to think that in a few years, mantras/slogans like “All accidents are preventable” will eventually be a thing of the past.

    • Rob Long

      I don’t think these silly slogans will go until the sector gets a little better educated about how negative and damaging this stuff is. Communication and thinking don’t seem to matter much in a Cert 4 WHS, it’s all about being guardians of the Act and Regulation. We have a long way to go.

  • Wynand

    I would like to put a question out there – 15 years ago I was in a bad car accident. I had right of way, but the other driver did not see me and turned in front of me, resulting in a head-on collision. Now the following are facts – the other car turned in front of me. We collidered. Both drivers were injured. There are some assumptions and deductions also – the other driver was probably distracted by a truck wanting to enter the crossing (and they often appear as if they are not going to stop at that specific crossing). Apparently the road design is flawed, and the visibility is limited for oncoming traffic. The other driver did not live in the area, and probably did not know the interseaction, especially the design flaw. The other driver was on route to a holiday, and I was on my way to work. Can someone please tell me which driver chose to be unsafe? Does the design flaw in the road follow from a decision not to be safe? While there are too many car accidents where a driver chooses to be unsafe (like not stopping at a stop sign or red traffic light), there are also many where the driver just did not know the action was unsafe. If you do something unsafe because you do not know the risk, does it make you choose not to be safe?
    Thanks Rob, another well-written argument to help us “be safer” by knowing better.

    • Rob long

      Wynand, your story makes it so clear why simplistic slogans with dangerous trajectories are something we should avoid. Why is it only in safety that people loves such illogical and negative stuff?

  • Dave Collins

    Well Rob you have once again successfully stirred up the good spud heads on LinkedIn – how dare you attack one of their most fundamental safety awareness tools – my favorite comment: “always good to hear the views of an academic” LOL. I asked what would happen if the employees put a sign in the bosses office saying: “be more profitable”? And would any spud head dare to put up such awareness messages around the home to remind loved ones of their responsibilities? Imagine a sign, like I saw yesterday at a work site, on Mrs Spud Head’s vanity mirror saying “you are looking at the person responsible for keeping this house clean”. I just hope they read all the way to the end of the article and see: “How about we talk more about caring for each other, having conversations about risk at work without blame and seeking out opportunities for positive learning”

    • Rob Long

      Poor old safety, where ignorance is so prized and desired. When we can’t deal with the question we must dismiss the messenger of the question and label so we don’t have to consider the validity of the question. Somehow I write a book and become a safety idiot and disconnected from reality, the world and workers. Funny, I engage with workers, present toolboxes and training every week and get the most amazing feedback about relevance and connectedness. Crikey I started in Construction at 46 years ago and have done a few things since then. As for safety favourite sayings, if they don’t make sense, they don’t make sense.

      • Dave Collins

        A good point I just read was that often these messages are put up by people who want to do something but just don’t know what else to do – one can imagine the warm fuzzy feeling they would get seeing their slogan up on the wall – its all about them!

  • Rob Sams

    Good one Rob. Three word slogans are the same not matter what discipline that are shared in. I remember a very wise Craig Ashurst once saying that for everyone complex problem there is a simple answer……. and it’s wrong! So many times in safety we want to fix things with a slogan, a short punch answer that will sort things out. I get this, I get the desire, the seduction as you recently put it, to simplify and makes things easy, but they often aren’t.

    I has a great discussion with some managers today. It started out with them telling me ‘safety’ was as simple , as setting clear standards and rules and people following them (you can imagine my response at this point). Our discussion which was set down for 30 minutes, extended to nearly 2 hours, and end with the most senior manager saying, I think I’m starting to understand the importance of learning. He’s been in the role for 20+ years. A great discussion and hopefully the start of some thinking (mainly in his unconscious mind) for him.

    Thanks for yet another great share Rob. I’m looking forward to hearing other peoples views and thoughts.

    • AC

      A quote inRisk Savvy – attributed to Einstein “make things as simple as possible, but no simpler”

      What a lovely sting in the tail!!

      • Dave Collins

        Hah! If only it were as simple as spruiking silly slogans

        • AC


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