Today, many organisations are moving safety into a holistic discipline that looks beyond lag indicator measures and blame culture, and yet safety myths still thrive. For this article, we review a paper published in the Cognition, Technology and Work journal that discusses six ‘safety myths’. The myths are related to human error, procedure compliance, protection and safety, root causes, accident investigation, and ‘safety first’. The research challenges old thinking to build a more mature view of safety for today’s modern organisations.
Human error is the largest single cause of accidents and incidents
Heinrich first introduced the concept of human error in 1931, and it remains the focus of many accident investigations today. Because work is subject to constraints that are imposed by managers, the authors argue that we should consider ‘human error’ as an artefact of a traditional engineering view. This view treats humans as if they were (fallible) machines and overlooks how performance adjustments are used to match activities to working conditions.
Systems will be safe if people comply with the procedures
We can achieve a safe workplace through procedure compliance. Conversely, we jeopardise safety by non-compliance. There is an entrenched belief in the correctness of engineering design, work specifications and procedures. When any of these fail, the explanation is typically found to be ‘human error’ or noncompliance. The authors suggest that actual working situations usually differ from what the procedures assume. Whereby strict compliance may be detrimental to both safety and efficiency. We should use the procedures carefully and intelligently.
We can improve safety by installing barriers and protection; increasing these leads to higher safety
Safety can be achieved either by eliminating risks or by protecting against their effects. However, the weaker the link between risk exposure and consequences, the less likely it is that protection will be used. Protection is more likely to be used when the feedback from not being protected is negative. Installing additional barriers or protection may change behaviour and affect the use of other intended safety improvements. When introducing new barriers for protection, carefully consider the unintended effects.
“Why do these myths still exist? In our opinion, one reason is that they simply do not get questioned.”
Root cause analysis can identify why mishaps happen in complex socio-technical systems
Root Cause Analysis of an accident or incident sets out to determine what happened and why it happened to find ways to reduce the possibility that it will happen again. However, the analysis only sees the failure and doesn’t recognise that things go right and wrong for the same reasons. The authors suggest we change this thinking to understand that we cannot describe the human performance as if it was bimodal. In socio-technical systems, things that go wrong happen in the same way as things that go right.
An accident investigation is the logical and rational identification of causes based on facts
When undertaking accident investigations, the aim is to discover the causes of unexpected and adverse outcomes. However, these can be numerous and therefore, impossible to investigate all of them. Hollnagel (2009) argues that the management of the investigation then becomes a trade-off between what we can do and what should do: a trade-off between efficiency and thoroughness. Therefore, the authors suggest that accident investigation is a social process, where causes are constructed rather than found.
Safety always has the highest priority and will never be compromised
The assumption is that safety is an absolute priority in the sense that it cannot be compromised. However, safety has financial implications, whereas the benefits are potential and distant in time. We often measure safety performance by the number of accidents and incidents. Rather than measuring an increase in the number of situations where things go right. Or positive safety performance indicators such as training. In doing so, there is less and less to measure as safety improves, which can then be interpreted to mean that the process is under control when, in fact, the opposite might be the case. Perhaps we should work towards:
Safety will be as high as affordable – from a financial and ethical perspective.
The goal of the safety professional is to do our best to work within the constraints of our role to deliver the highest level of safety we can. However, how much do these pervasive safety myths still hamper our work? Do others continue to question workplace accidents according to human error, procedure compliance, protection and safety, root causes, accident investigation, and ‘safety first’? Hopefully, less and less.