Making Objects Safe or People Safe

by Dr Rob Long on May 14, 2014

in Risk Aversion,Robert Long,Zero Harm


Making Objects Safe or People Safe


I often ask people in risk and safety training as my first question, ‘When you walk on site, what are you looking for?’ It was no different this week and I got the usual answer ‘hazards!’ A number of people in the group had many years as inspectors, auditors and investigators and are usually zealous about the authority of safety over everything else, even people’s freedom to make a wrong choice. In recent discussions, I have been astounded by safety people who have no expertise in several arenas who clearly believe that safety gives them a mandate to ride roughshod over what others do in schooling, health, community and homes.

People in my training groups are usually shocked when I respond to my own question and say that when I walk on site I don’t primarily look or listen for hazards. When I walk on site I look and listen to people. Unless we have a profound understanding of how people make decisions and judgments, how can you know if something is hazardous? Unfortunately, the safety industry elevates inspectors and auditors to god status because they can stop work, but does it mean they really know what to look for and listen for on site? Are inspectors and auditors trained in effective communication skills, people skills, psychology and the social psychology of risk? Or, are they locked into an object checklist mindset that has its own philosophy and blindspots created by the maker of the checklist?

Hazards are objects, but unless a person engages with that object, it has no likelihood of harming anyone. So, when inspectors and auditors wander around on site looking at ‘things’, what are they really doing? They are entering into a world of social and psychological imagination for which they are not trained. When they look at objects they are either responding to that object because some history, rule or experience tells them that the object can be ‘made’ unsafe or, they are imagining what can happen when a human engages improperly with that object. In either case, they are using imagination to engage in social or psychological projections to propose a judgment.

Risk and safety is not about ‘things’ but about how people make decisions about ‘things’. When we walk on site are we good at asking effective open questions and listening? Have we some training in the nature of perception, human mindsets and thinking? If so, how was that skill acquired, by magic, by only experience (trial and error)? If we don’t know how to ask open questions and listen but rather, create a climate of fear, all the research demonstrates that people will simply tell you what you want to hear. I find it amusing that various agencies run ‘speak up about safety’ campaigns on one hand and then on the other run campaigns of ‘compliance crackdowns’. For example

Speak up (

Compliance Crackdown (

It doesn’t matter whether a person is 5 or 50, we don’t speak up to people we fear or who are made fearful. We certainly don’t confess to people of fear about things for which they will punish us. There is a social psychology to risk and safety, it’s not just about objects.

It is amusing how most of the paperwork associated with risk and safety collects data on objects too. Some agencies such as the Office of Federal Safety Commission, created to invoke culture change in the building and construction industry, clearly think that culture is about objects and the collection of information about objects. When one hears various agencies talk about safety there is little talk about learning, imagination, people skills, decision making, human judgment, communication skills, social or psychological knowledge. One could be forgiven for thinking that the best training for a risk and safety person is that of engineer and policing.

If risk and safety is all about objects then that would make sense to train safety people in policing and engineering however, that is your training, how do you then communicate what you know? How to you engage the very people you are trying to help? Do people skills come automatically to those who have their primary focus on objects? Isn’t there a balance in both training and action for those who are taught that risk and safety is all about objects? Is risk and safety about telling people how to think or, is it about helping people learn how to think for themselves about risk? Are people only safe when the safety police are about? How does that create a culture of risk and safety ownership?

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, 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.
  • Thanks Steve, interesting article. But what are you trying to train people in? I agree a better educated workforce is going to be an asset to any organisation safety wise. But where do you draw the line and where do you allow people to make decisions regarding how they safely interact with an object? Sure, there may be more than one way to safely complete a task, but who has authorised the task to be completed in a way differently to the agreed/accepted/consulted method?

    It’s good to see that which ever forum you consult have signaled the death knell for BBS, but surely BBS was a step in the right direction for the education and training of workers for which you so ardently strive. I can only assume that your holy grail is some form of modern day common sense for which most safety professional seem to long. Oh, the days when it was obvious how dangerous such and such an activity was.

    You can train, educate, actively listen to and motivate people until the cows come home, it doesn’t mean they are going to be any safer. And you should also consider that employers don’t necessarily want educated/trained/aware people in the workplace, they want production and somewhat general compliance with their WHS obligations. You seem to forget that organisations have also done their risk assessments as to what is considered acceptable safety in their workplace to satisfy legislation, community, shareholder and insurance stakeholders.

    Sarah Day

  • Stephen Cook

    Thanks Doctor Rob for putting into words what I have been trying to get people to understand ie safety is not about objects it should be about people.

    • Riskex

      Thanks Steve – as soon as I read it I could not wait to publish it – hits the nail right on the head!


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