Non Common Sense Mythology

by Dr Rob Long on April 28, 2015

in Robert Long,Zero Harm

clip_image002_thumb.jpgArticle by Dr Robert Long, rouse around all you common sense and zero zealots surely we can escalate more things to ban and more things to police. If you liked this article then you should read the whole series: CLICK HERE. I highly recommend you check out Rob’s book “RISK MAKES SENSE

Non Common Sense Mythology

The HSE in the UK recently announced they were setting up a ‘Myth Busters Challenge Panel’ to scrutinize health and safety in the UK to ensure that the current trend in risk aversion is addressed. The HSE pulled out their top 10 most absurd health and safety decisions as an example of the extent to which safety paranoia had got out of hand. These were:

1. Children being banned from playing ‘conkers’ unless they are wearing goggles

2. Office workers being banned from putting up Christmas decorations

3. Trapeze artists being ordered to wear hard hats

4. Pin the tail on the donkey games being deemed a health and safety risk

5. Candy floss on a stick being banned in case people trip and impale themselves

6. Hanging baskets being banned in case people bump their heads on them

7. Schoolchildren being ordered to wear clip on ties in case they are choked by traditional neckwear

8. Park benches must be replaced because they are three inches too low

9. Flip flops being banned from the workplace

10. Graduates ordered not to throw their mortar boards in the air

Now, we probably understand the reason why such absurd rules are made. We also probably know that fear diminishes learning and living. If we do, then we know that ‘risk makes sense’, if we don’t understand risk then we tend to demonise it. When risk becomes the demon then zero becomes the hero.

So far so good for the UK, good to see that the HSE is keen to reverse this absurd trend in non-sensemaking. Then, as if to dismantle and the very good that was trying to be done, the Minister Chris Grayling comes out with this clanger: ‘Common sense is the key to health and safety’. ( 11 April 2012)

I couldn’t think of anything worse to say in safety than to use such words ‘common sense’, unless it was to use the word ‘zero’. Both expressions and related discourse are dangerous. This is why the words and discourse of ‘common sense’ are dangerous:

1. Common sense is rarely defined. In my training I often ask people to define their understanding of the expression ‘common sense’ and I get as many definitions as people in the room. Wikipedia defines Common Sense as: as beliefs or propositions that most people consider prudent and of sound judgment, without reliance on esoteric knowledge or study or research, but based upon what they see as knowledge held by people ‘in common’. Thus “common sense” (in this view) equates to the knowledge and experience which most people already have, or which the person using the term believes that they do or should have.

2. Common sense is highly subjective. We all interpret and ‘filter’ information according to our own knowledge and experience. One can’t assume common understanding but must rather create it. This is why we have toolbox talks, inductions and meetings, to create common understanding.

3. Common sense is not that common. It is a non-sense to propose that safety is objectively self evident to everyone.

4. Common sense talk is used as a blaming tool.

5. If common sense existed why would the HSE need to create a mythbuster squad? It is because it doesn’t exist that risk aversion non-sense trends abound.

6. Much ‘sensemaking’ is intuitive and based on experience and we don’t share experience in common.

7. Risk is primarily attributed according to perceptions and experience and we all vary in perception. This is why we have regulations and laws, to try and standardize the sensemaking of humans to eliminate the subjective attribution of risk. In some ways regulations are an effort to try and create a ‘common’ sense making around risk but even the regulations can be interpreted.

8. Common sense is most spoken about by people who don’t understand the behaviour of others and who don’t understand risk.  The expression is used to dismiss rather than understand human judgment and decision making.

9. The idea that there is an objective self evident idea of shared knowledge is, in itself, a denial of learning, individual difference, cultural difference and the science of perception. If common sense exists why have training? The very action of calling for this thing proved that it doesn’t exist.

10. The language of common sense simply expects too much of others, has no boundaries and is premised on the idea that behaviour that I don’t understand is therefore irrational. This means that risk for me makes sense but the risk of others is stupid. The language of common sense is then used to project blame and exalt oneself as superior.

So good on you Minister Grayling, you just contradicted all that your flying squad is trying to achieve. How can you tackle myths with myths? No wonder the UK HSE is stuffed. (

Pity, we in Australia are lagging behind the UK but I’m sure we will get there in 10 years. Rouse around all you common sense and zero zealots surely we can catch up to our UK friends and escalate more things to ban and more things to police.


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.
  • Brian Marshall

    hi Dave
    i found this interesting at the following website February 2009
    How many times do we hear in the Safety business,
    “Safety is just common sense”?
    Well, if it were so common there would be a lot fewer
    Implying that safety is common sense relegates it to
    those areas in our life which don’t require much thought
    or close attention. We know otherwise.
    When we treat safety as common sense we make it a
    mindless act.
    Scott Geller, in one of his presentations, mentioned the
    concept of doing something mindfully. That seems to be the solution – mindfulness is
    just the opposite of common sense as a mindless behavior.
    A couple of factors affect something appearing to be common sense. The first is
    perspective. Usually when we do an incident analysis after someone has been
    injured or a close call is reported we are looking back on the behavior, condition or
    event. From this viewpoint looking into the past we can often see things which are
    obvious to us that weren’t as obvious to the people involved.
    As with many things in life, hindsight is 20/20. With the advantage of hindsight things
    often seem clear because they are not clouded by the pressures and stress of the
    everyday workplace.
    A second factor that affects common sense is that common sense changes over
    So the next time someone tells you safety is common sense ask them “when and
    why?” This ought to get them thinking and after all safety is something we must think
    about if we expect to act safely. Safety deserves more than common sense; it
    deserves mindfulness.

    Brian Marshall
    OHSCON Workplace Safety

    • Riskex

      Totally agree Brian. Critics often only ever balme “lack of common sense” after an event with the benefit of hindsight. Seen some pretty smart people do some pretty stupid things in my time!

Previous post:

Next post: