Recently we were reviewing an accident investigation report at a client site where in two separate incidents employees were splashed with a hazardous chemical. Luckily, the chemical is not imminently dangerous, so the employees were not hurt. In the investigation, the employees were splashed at two separate times while transferring the chemical through a pipe that had an opening in it. A maintenance employee pointed out the opening years before, but the operations employees (the department that the employees who were splashed were from) discounted the maintenance employee’s concerns, pointing out that they had done it the way they were doing it for years.
This argument from the operations employees is a common variant of something heard a lot in business – “that’s the way we’ve always done it”. In the safety profession this is a common response we get when we go to employees to tell them how to do jobs safely. It can be frustrating for us because it’s hard to change people’s minds if they are stuck in the past.
However, we all know that the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” argument is flawed. Risk has a frequency component to it. So something can be done multiple times without incident, perhaps due to nothing more than luck, but the risk can still be high. Obviously in the case above about the chemical transfer, doing it for years did not mean that it was free from risk of chemical exposure.
Of course the problem is that the propensity of people to learn through trial and error provides a potential for a false sense of security. We do something, we get feedback from our environment that it was safe (as evidenced by the fact that we did not die, nor were we injured), and so we learn that this is the right thing to do. Add to this a further human propensity to push boundaries and test limits, which means that as we cut corners and start to believe that doing so is “safe”, we will be more likely to cut the corner even further. This leads to drift and is an obvious recipe for problems.
So how should we deal with it? The traditional approach that many have advocated is to focus on the person and prove them wrong. The problem is one of risk perception, so the story goes, so we need to focus on how to fix their risk perception.
This is a flawed approach in our opinion. First off, the problem of risk perception is not an individual problem, it’s a people problem. People have tendencies to downplay or overplay certain risks more so than perhaps they should. This is a common finding in risk perception research, so if your approach is to try to change the risk perception of every person you come across who you believe has a flawed understanding of the risk they face, you are going to face a never ending battle.
Even if this is doable though, we think the focus on risk perception sort of misses an important point. The issue is not about their understanding of the risk, but with their definition of safety. Think about it, if someone says “that’s the way we’ve always done it” as evidence that what they are doing is safe enough, they are saying that safety is the absence of accidents. Nothing bad has happened, therefore they must be safe. Obviously this is a bad assumption though. Safety should not be defined by its absence but by its presence. If your organization relies a lot on the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” argument then your organization is defining safety in a very reactive way.
But this doesn’t mean, as safety leaders, we should immediately go into a diatribe explaining how their implicit mental model of safety is causing them to make a fundamental logical error. You’ll just get blank stares if you do that. Instead, we recommend you use “that’s the way we’ve always done it” to change the conversation in your organization around how safety is defined. For example, try this for a response:
“You are right. You’ve done it that way for a while and nothing bad has happened. So something must be going right. Why don’t you walk me through the process you use and lets specifically identify what about what you’re doing is making this successful?”
What have we done by responding in this way? First, we acknowledge their expertise. After all, their experience is valid. Nothing bad has probably happened and it very well could be because of what they are doing. By acknowledging that you affirm their expertise, which reduces some of the confrontational nature that tends to mark interactions between safety professionals and workers. The conversation becomes positive and more productive.
Second, we allow the worker to begin to reflect on their work. Essentially we start learning from what goes right. We can pinpoint those key elements that enable success, those things that we think are making us successful but really are not, and those things that are actually holding us back. Furthermore, you’ve changed the focus of the employee from proving to you that what you are recommending is not necessary, to proving what they are doing is sufficiently safe. This simple change in perspective may help them see things that they couldn’t see before. It also changes your perspective, and you might begin to appreciate aspects of the job that you never appreciated before, such as the complexity of the work, or the unique expertise of the workers.
Finally, this process enables better decision-making in the organization. By explicitly identifying what is making the job safe you have a clearer picture of the critical tasks that may need some additional protection. You may see how one of the key elements keeping workers safe is their ability to communicate with one another, for example, which can help you better assess the risk of organizational changes that may affect that communication. Think how much more effective training new employees will be knowing which steps in the task and which features of the job are critical.
The key point in all of this is that changing the conversation can have profound effects. Start looking at how the actions and language within your organization implies what their definition of safety is and look for opportunities to change that conversation toward seeing less as the absence of negative events (accidents, incidents, deviations) and more as the presence of positives (i.e., the capacity to achieve success under varying conditions).