The Human Oil in the Process Engine

Neil HartleyHealth & Safety Issues/TrendsLeave a Comment

the human oil in the process engine

Today started with a review of Staying Alive: Preventing Serious Injury and Fatalities while Working at Height All-Party Parliamentary Group on Working at Height from February 2019. This on the back of the recent headlines about the upward trend of worker fatalities, particularly those arising from ‘falls from a height’, and our subsequent deeper dive into the historical statistical trends.

The APPG review on ‘working at height’ is a succinct review of how we got to the current state and makes some interesting recommendations for the future including the following statement: “The APPG believes that the most effective way to improve the culture of those working at height is to enhance the reporting of accidents and ‘near misses’ and to investigate the introduction of civil enforcement.”

There were other major recommendations made but that one caught the eye as it seemed to promote Safety I rather than Safety II. And so I fell into the trap of an either/or mentality:

  • Safety I vs Safety II
  • Science/mathematics vs psychology
  • Heinrich vs Dekker
  • Process vs emergent behaviour

Why one or the other and not both?

I’m sure every health and safety professional has watched Safety Differently: The Movie. It’s less than 30 minutes long and presents an extremely compelling case for the use of emergent behaviour in safety. Dekker explains the concept of emergent behaviour using the shared road traffic experiment in Holland. He says:

“Imagine a space a space in which there’s no rules.

“A space in which people can themselves determine the best course of action.

“A space in which people spontaneously negotiate and collaborate in order to create the safest outcomes for everyone in this space.

“A new type of humanity emerges. Nobody is telling them. They figure it out on the spot. We call this emergent behaviour.

“It started out with a normal traffic management system with lights and signs and barriers and lines, and all of that led to a huge gridlock every day and about 10 pretty bad accidents every year. So, a traffic engineer came in and said, “Let’s take everything out,” and in this square people now enter and they cannot be not engaged in their own safety and it’s interesting that you make things look riskier you actually get safer behaviour.”

There lies the philosophy of Safety Differently, trusting people to find solutions and not blaming them for the problems. Of course, as Dekker also points out, this enlightened approach to leadership is stymied by management’s fear of change, fear of losing control and by a lack of trust in their people.

Conversely, in many companies, workers no longer trust their management to look after their well-being when times are tough and believe that their authority figures (we won’t call them leaders) will put the numbers before the people rather than the other way around. Consequently, people start working to rule and follow the processes and rules in place (as opposed to common sense) even in the face of absurdity for fear of being disciplined or even losing their jobs. Simon Sinek talks about this in what I’ll call his Caveman TED Talk.

Well-thought out, well-honed processes can and do have a place in safety but they’ll never be perfect and can always be improved by the creativity of workers. Indeed, sub-standard processes can be made to work by people who understand how to effectively get the job done (at least some of the baggage issues at the launch of LHR T5 were attributed to workers ‘withdrawing their knowledge’ and following the [sub-standard] rules and processes exactly).

Another reason to continue to work on perfecting processes is the burgeoning use of contractors in the workplace. Processes created by the workers perhaps rather than passed down from central office but processes nonetheless. Success of the shared road traffic experiment in Holland must have been, at least in part, down to users’ familiarity with the junction? If the traffic mix were to change and more out-of-towners were to pass through, what then? We just don’t know but it’s an interesting parallel.

Our overarching message is that there is good and bad in most things. Let’s focus on taking the good from where it exists and worry less about whether that fits a particular dogma. In doing that we stand a chance of breaking through the statistical plateau that is Great Britain worker fatality rates.

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