The Insanity of Safety

By Nicole Barrett, Psychologist

Dec 10, 2015

insanity of safety

Think about Albert Einstein's definition of insanity for a moment:

"... doing something over and over and expecting different results."

With the frontline workforce, complex systems and operating procedures lead to a tick and flick mentality rather than the critical thinking required to identify hazards and manage risk.

Research also suggest that complying with onerous system requirements can result in lost productivity by as much as 50% and is costing the country billions of dollars each year.

High volumes of paperwork and keeping up to date with changing procedures are frequently perceived barriers to safety performance and a large proportion of workers do not believe that systems keep them safe.

If that's not enough to convince you that safety's gone mad, and something needs to shift, then consider the potential impacts on safety culture - complex systems and procedures equip people with an excuse for non-compliance.

Leaders and managers believe that complex systems and procedures result in minor deviations from operational processes which is confirmed by the workforce.

Whilst minor rule bending may be risk assessed in some way, it appears that non-compliance to procedures is being normalised in order to progress work and get the job done. Warning! These behaviours undermine the compliance imperative and have the potential to creep in on higher risk activities.

If the system or procedure is not effective and fit for purpose, then rectify them so that your compliance standard can be set, monitored and reinforced by management.

Despite widespread complaint about bureaucracy and the complexity of systems, much of it is self-imposed and we are knowingly doing the same thing over and over.

How did we arrive here and what can be done to stop the insanity?

The answer is far from simple, and let's not forget there are legislative requirements, but check to see if any of these are relevant or hold true in your organisation:

  • We rely on and gain a level of comfort from believing that systems and procedures control risk and keep people safe.
  • Incident investigations often fail to uncover 'all' of the root causes due to tight time-frames, technocratic methods and the homogeneous capabilities of the investigation teams.
  • When an incident occurs, leaders want answers and action and they want it now. In response, managers and safety professionals react with quick fix solutions.
  • Safety systems are often developed and owned by the safety experts and there is little upfront collaboration with the operational people that use them.

How businesses respond to incidents is a significant contributor to the rise in complexity. There is a sense of panic and something, anything, needs to be done urgently. From a Neuroscience perspective, navigating the labyrinth of potential root causes is really hard going so we are inherently biased toward our own field of expertise and, to make it easy, stick with what we know. Yes, that would be another system or procedure!

More and more we hear that the benefits of traditional methods to ensuring safe, reliable and stable performance have plateaued. Now is the time for organisations and professionals to recognise their predispositions, adopt diverse approaches, become better learners and resist the temptation to jump on quick fix solutions to complex problems.

Here's a few tips:

  • Understand and manage your culture or it will manage you
  • Include diverse skill sets in the investigation team
  • Allow sufficient time to identify root causes including the systemic patterns and cultural influences
  • When re-designing or introducing new systems, procedures and processes, genuinely collaborate with the people that use them
  • Ask your people "what are the stupidest things we do here", evaluate and then rectify or eliminate them
  • Accentuate and be clearer about what must go right rather than focusing on what might go wrong

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