Safety – an underinformed profession?

“I’m not saying that it’s all wrong, but that the hype has really taken over”

Safety – an underinformed profession?
Opening a conversation around safety.
Dave Rebbitt

I’ve been in health and safety for a long time. We all have our stories of how we came to be involved in the profession of health and safety. Many people will tell you that they became involved unintentionally or by accident. No pun intended there. I am just saying that not everyone really chose a career in health and safety. They were thrust into it.

Over the years, I’ve heard of many theories. At some point, I believed all of them to some extent. Early on in my career, I thought that the Heinrich pyramid or the Bird pyramid were close to being factual. In the back of my mind, there were always nagging doubts.

Even when behavior-based safety came along, I thought that might look promising, and it did capture my interest for a while. It certainly seemed like a good way to engage people in safety.

Then came safety culture, which was supposed to fix everything. By then, I was in senior management and had a bit of a different viewpoint. I began to wonder why people thought that a safety advisor or even a safety manager could change the culture of an organization. I thought that was amusing and entirely impractical.

Like some lucky people, I had an epiphany at some point and realized that a lot of the safety dogma being taught in schools and a lot of the things we are trumpeted by various organizations were simply not factual. Dogma is simply a set of principles that have been laid down and are held to be incontrovertibly true. Sound familiar?

I’m not saying that it’s all wrong, but that the hype has really taken over, and whatever substances there was, has been lost in consultant-fuelled rhetoric.


Now, I freely admit, there was a time when I would’ve told people pedaling obvious snake oil that they were wrong. I would also have told people who were parroting some unfortunate statistics or perceived facts that they were wrong.

I never yelled at them or claimed that I had all the answers (I certainly don’t). Anyone who says they have all the answers is truly underinformed. I’ve never considered myself a zealot or an extremist. Over the years, I have really sought to avoid extreme language. There is no black/white or right/wrong.

Years ago, I thought that people were telling me things that were simply wrong. However, they were actually telling me things that other people told them. These other people must have appeared credible because here was somebody telling me something that they had “learned” from someone else.

These people had learned these things in classes, informal courses, and even in conversations with institutions that should be credible. In many cases, they were even able to quote books where they had gotten this information or “facts.”

Could a book be wrong? Could a credible learning institution? Could an expert? The answer is – of course, they could be. A lot depends on context. Do we believe something that was written in a book in 1918? 1931? 1973? 1985? I’m sure you see my point. Those books were written with the information they had at the time. They weren’t wrong then, but they might be out of date now - underinformed.

I touched on a few subjects here because these tend to be hot-button issues that safety people love to argue about. Some have given rise to almost religious devotion. I would like to suggest that neither side is right or wrong. I would suggest that one side is more informed than the other.

We are all learning

No one would argue that safety is an evolving practice or profession. In order to evolve and become a profession, health and safety professionals and practitioners must keep learning. It isn’t about who’s right and wrong. It may be about who is, or is not, underinformed. It’s really about keeping people safe. If we want to get better at that, we probably need to stop arguing about theories that still remain unproven.

It’s okay to be wrong, and sometimes it’s not a lot of fun being right. Taking a risk and stating a position that might be contrary to what everyone else in the room thinks is a courageous thing to do. Looking at different viewpoints and different opinions helps all of us to learn and to understand.

Anyone who offers a solution that is going to positively affect the health and safety performance of an organization should be able to explain exactly how that is going to happen. It’s not about buying into a concept or buying a product, and suddenly things must improve.

One thing health and safety practitioners really do need to learn, above all other things, is the Hawthorne or Observer effect. Simply by observing something and measuring that process, product, and outcome - it will improve. Not because of what’s being done but because there is attention being paid to it. Many of the so-called safety silver bullets rely on this effect to demonstrate a short-term improvement that is not related to any product or expertise that they bring to the workplace.

Believing that there is a result because of these “new” activities is termed a fundamental attribution error in statistics. It is a bias that leads to underestimating the effect of other factors that may affect the outcome.

This is a great example of being underinformed. This causes confusion, disagreement, and arguments amongst health and safety practitioners. These things are done in an attempt to improve workplace safety. Right idea – poor execution (another favorite saying). They might work short-term but fail in the end.

Respectful discourse and disagreement

Every few years, new phrases or terms are coined. As another writer I know has been already repeatedly pointed out, these ideas are not new. Even the way that these things are implemented is not new. These “new concepts” are often based on very old ones that flow in to fill the gaps as the latest fad fails.

We have safety zealots (I can’t really think of a better term) who run around blindly believing this safety dogma clutching their sacred holy texts. Those people believe they are making a difference and doing the right thing. It never occurs to them that they are actively eroding the credibility of the profession and even embarrassing themselves. They are underinformed and completely closed to any other viewpoints or ideas. They remain convinced even after their company has one serious incident after another. Opening a closed mind is unlikely to happen. These people will, thankfully, remain a small minority.

We see health and safety practitioners attacking each other on social media for their ideas. Sometimes it’s amusing. I have to admit that I used to be part of a health and safety group based around a single safety theory, and I would drop once a year and post a question asking if anyone had any evidence the approach worked. I got some really nasty replies – still no evidence.

Dan Petersen said, “There is no one right way to achieve safety.” That is true. Health and safety practitioners need to stop arguing about which approach is right. They all have some merit. In some cases, approaches that shouldn’t work might work in specific instances, in specific companies. How can we find out about that? We need to be able to talk to each other – to take a risk. Instead of branding others wrong, we should be trying to understand why they have come to believe what they believe.

I know from personal experience how embarrassing it is to suddenly and discover that what you believe to be true is actually demonstrably false. Believe me, there are things that health and safety professionals believe that are demonstrably false. I’m sure there are some things I still believe that are demonstrably false. Remaining open to that possibility leaves you open to some intellectually stimulating conversations and possibly a way to improve your effectiveness in your chosen field.

Next time someone says something to you that seems foolish or silly - or that you know to be untrue. Perhaps you should say that that sounds underinformed and ask where they came under that impression so you might understand why they believe what they do. It is often because of something they were taught or told by some seemingly credible individual or organization.

That sort of leads me to one of my other favorite sayings. I like to say people might be underinformed who have an opposing viewpoint that is not fact-based. Instead of saying they’re underinformed or using other flowery language. I may say something that begins with “help me understand.” So I can say, “That is interesting. Can you help me understand why you think that’s true?”

That might lead to a real conversation between professionals instead of slinging insults. The path to a profession is through informed, fact-based respectful discourse.