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.

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