Common Sense is Non Sense

by Dr Rob Long on June 20, 2016

in Robert Long,Safety Training

Common Sense is Non Sense

Latest article by Dr Rob Long following on from Phil LaDukes article:

I highly recommend Rob’s other Articles HERE and his new book: For The Love of Zero

imageOn Tuesday 12 March 2013, Rockhampton-based Arrow Property Maintenance faced the Queensland Coroner’s Court regarding a teenager electrocuted installing home insulation. The inquest heard from the Director of Arrow that the 16-year-old didn’t receive formal safety training because staying safe was ‘common sense’.

Arrow director Richard Jackson gave evidence on the first day of a coronial inquest into three deaths on Monday 11 March. Appearing via video link he admitted the only safety training he gave workers installing insulation was to look out for hazards such as bare wires. The inquest will run for the rest of the week, with a further three days set down in early May. In light of the safety legislation the court should quickly dispel the nonsense of ‘common sense’. The notion of ‘common sense’ absolves people of responsibility to ‘ensure a safe workplace’ and is in direct contradiction to the Work Health and Safety Act. If safety is ‘common sense’ then we need no trainers, training programs, safety officers, inductions or safety legislation. The idea of ‘common sense’ simply means ‘fly by the seat of your pants’, or ‘work it out by yourself’.

The idea that ‘common sense’ exists or can be defined is a non-sense. The sooner we dispose of such illogical and unsafe language the better.  The safety community needs to understand that language has a ‘priming effect’ on ideas and behavior. This is why supervisors and safety people should avoid language such as ‘common sense’, ‘can do’, ‘get the job done’, ‘zero harm’, ‘whatever it takes’, ‘she’ll be right mate’ and other generalistic and meaningless language that misleads and provides no definition around expectations or behaviour. I read recently a book by Difford entitled ‪Redressing the Balance – A Common sense Approach to Causation and, nowhere in the volume is the concept of common sense defined. This is how the notion of common sense works, it only has special meaning for ‘me’ but there is no common assumed agreement between ‘us’. When we speak of ‘common sense’ we simply mean ‘my sense’ of the context or situation.

The language of ‘common sense’ is always used to blame others for a form of thinking that is not common. For example, ‘If they had only used their common sense, they wouldn’t have been hurt’ or ‘common sense would tell you not to do that’. We hear the constant declaration that common sense is required in a particular place or context and this simply demonstrates that it doesn’t exist. If common sense were a reality then there would be no need for inductions or training, people would somehow magically know what to do. The evidence shows that even after extensive inductions and training, people still don’t know what to do.

The reality is that people ‘sensemake’ differently depending on a host of formative reasons. Prof. Karl Weick was first to articulate the idea of ‘organisational sensemaking’. You can read more about organisational sensemaking at


I simplified Weick’s idea of ‘sensemaking’ in my book Risk Makes Sense in order to help people better grasp the idea that there is no ‘common sense’. Weick discusses the essential tools and filters we use to make sense of information, these are:

Self Esteem: Your own confidence in yourself, personal identity and what you think of yourself in relation to others will affect the way you interpret information.

History: Your past story, from where you were born and lived to what got you to where you are. All things in your personal history have some influence in what you know and how you interpret the present.

Social Context: Where you are in relation to others, what is happening around you, the nature of those around you and the way they relate to the same information all influence the way you interpret information.

Confirming Evidence: We act something into belief, even creating a bias in our minds so that when something happens it confirms the belief. For example, if we rev up our own car in response to the hot car full of young men mentioned earlier, we enact a new scenario which may confirm or disconfirm what we believe. If we hold our finger up or tactically ignore their behaviour, each act brings into being a new act. Something new changes the sense of what is happening.

Cues and Indicators: What we see, hear and feel doesn’t necessarily carry information with it. We recognise indicators and cues which give us information similar to things we have experienced before. We recognise the importance of the revving motor and know it means power, provocation and aggression. All information is subjective and interpreted.

Believability: Isn’t it peculiar that when something unexpected happens we express surprise, amazement and disbelief? Our capacity to imagine is directly linked to not only what we believe but also to what we are willing to believe. Our ability to imagine extends or limits our ability to make sense of things. Believability is an important part of prediction, and combines with past experience and cues to help us imagine what is possible. If we don’t think something is possible, we don’t plan for it and certainly can’t imagine the risks associated with it. We now know a tsunami can kill 250,000 people, we now know in Australia that a bushfire can kill 250 people and we now know that an earthquake and tsunami can put a country into nuclear crisis. Such evidence changes the way we interpret new information.

Flow: The final tool we use to make sense of things is flow. The pace and speed of events affects the way we interpret them. Much of what we sense goes quickly to our subconscious and triggers a rapid intuitive response. Our intuition or gut feeling bypasses the need to process things step by step in a slow logical pattern. Our intuition gives us the ‘flight or fight’ response we need in a crisis.

These are the factors we bring to bear in how we ‘make sense’ of things, including safety. It is simply not good enough to rely on some mythical idea of a common point of shared knowledge to keep people safe. It is not enough to through together a Powerpoint presentation saturated with text as if this somehow helps people become inducted into hazard and risk identification on site. How can people ‘make sense’ of so much information when their mind is ‘flooded’ by such an ‘arse covering’ exercise. There is no ‘common sense’ but organisational sensemaking can be created. This requires a new approach to inductions and training that has a focus on learning, education and creating safety through communication and consultation about risk.

  • freemna thurston

    Excellent article!

  • Jim Loud

    Another excellent article Dr. Rob! It’s natural for people to look for simple answers to complex problems (this very human trait is discussed quite well in both “Thinking Fast and Slow” and “The Black Swan”). The safety profession seems unduly susceptable to quick “common sense” fixes, however. If safety is just commonsense then many of us sure wasted a lot of time and money on our education and certification efforts. In fact, if safety is just common sense why bother to give it any management attention at all? And why are we spending money on these safety experts? Can’t we just remind our employees (because they apparently lack our storehouse of commonsense) to be more careful? This perception relegates safety to a simple behavioral problem readily fixable with motivational training and speakers, disciplinary actions, incentives, “awareness” campaigns and off the shelf BBS programs. No management safety system is apparently necessary. Would we ever say that production is just commonsense and trivialize it the way we do safety?

  • Desai Link

    Good article
    Common sense for a person with decades of experience in a particular area will have a very different meaning to a new person in that same area. One person’s common sense may actually be the product of years of training and conditioning.
    To some extent this may contribute to the natural law/positive law debate.

  • One of those famous Chineses blokes said the trouble with common sense is that it is never common and rarely sensible

  • Thabi

    What an eye opening article, thank you.

    You have certainly helped me remove my own filters not only regarding safety but life in general because you have given me an aha! moment about a totally unrelated event a response to which was driven by all the essential tools and factors we use to make sense of information.

  • Laurence Svirchev, CIH, MA, BSc.

    Agreed: the term “common sense” is non sense. If “common sense” were universal (common) to workers and all levels of management, then there would be no need for OHS prevention programs, training, rules, procedures. This terminology should be banned from the vocabulary of OHS professionals used because it leads to false presumptions. We train people in safe work methods because every work place contains hazards that must be controlled by a combination of engineering, administrative, and personal protective controls. We train people and assign responsibilities to managers, supervisors, foremen, and workers in order to implement these controls.

  • Khalid Iqbal

    Thanks for sharing. Common Sense is one of my favourite subject especially when it comes for Training.


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