The Most Important Laws Governing Safety Don’t Come from Government Regs

We all know Murphy’s Law— anything that can go wrong will go wrong[1] but far fewer know Pascals Gambit, Occams Razor, or Parkinson’s Law.  And this week I thought I would explore how these laws govern safety and how we can use these laws to change the way we think about Safety.

Murphy’s Laws and Its Bastards

Murphy’s first law Laws is probably the most quoted of all the law’s that are supposed to govern business (if not life itself.)  Murphy’s Law is interesting not only in its simplicity but because it is the bastard child of another, older law: Sod’s Law.

Sod’s Law

“Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”

The widely known law proffered by a little known author and attributed to another better-known one holds that anything that can go wrong will go wrong.  An admittedly bleak perspective and one that is easy enough to invalidate (after all Sod had the huevos to speak in absolutes where many, myself included, use weasel words like “many” or “likely”—using these words I need only produce one example to make my statement true whereas I need only produce a single exception to ?’s law to discredit it, but then I digress.) In terms of safety we would be wise to incorporate ?’s law into our mindset.  Shit happens.  And sometimes the shit that happens comes back to bite us in lethal or fatal way.  I used to get derided by safety professionals when ever I would say this.  A roar would go up not heard since Jesus before the Sanhedrin.  “Heresy!! Blasphemer!! Or worse yet the dripping condescension of a smirking jerk in the audience at a conference. I guess I was in good company.  But the fact remains that while there is always a chance that we can get blindsided by some unanticipated factor, most (yes I said, “most”) injuries happen from multiple variables working in concert with a catalyst.  So we can reduce the probability that the things that can go wrong won’t go wrong, but it’s a whole lot of work, and let’s face it, we have our fair share of lazy working in our field.

Murphy’s Law

If anything can go wrong, it will go wrong

At first blush, Murphy’s first law seems indistinguishable from Sod’s Law, but the importance while subtle is important for safety professionals.  Murphy’s Law is a little less fatalistic than Sod’s Law, Murphy allows that there may be some possibility than things won’t go wrong, at least not immediately.  This may be a semantic difference but it’s my blog and I’ll pick nits if I want to.  In either case, both Sod and Murphy agree that we need to spend our efforts and energies determining what can go wrong and how we can reduce the probability that it won’t.  This thinking is at the heart of all safety processes and while it sounds rational, it ignores both Murphy’s and Sod’s Laws—that if there is a possibility that something can go wrong we need to expect that it will.  So trying to prevent something from going wrong is impossible since the probability of catastrophe is never reduced to zero percent.

Finagle’s Law of Dynamic Negatives

Anything that can go wrong, will—at the worst possible moment

Another interesting law at play in the workplace is Finagle’s Law of Dynamic Negatives which states that Anything that can go wrong will—at the worst possible moment. This expectation should help safety professionals to understand the danger of collaborative hazards—that is, those conditions, whether behavioral, mechanical, or environmental that act in concert with one another to either create a catalyst for disaster or causing the hazard outright.  This mindset should forewarn the safety professional against seeing a hazard condition in a vacuum or without context, which sadly many behavior based safety programs actively encourage.

Parkinson’s Law

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

Perhaps the most destructive force operating in the workplace, and safety, is Parkinson’s Law.  Parkinson’s Law holds that any task will expand to the time allotted to perform it.  Wasting time eats at productivity like a cancer, and yet Safety professionals gleefully choke the organization’s calendar with some sort of safety dog and pony show.  One and half hour weekly safety meetings, safety BINGOs, safety talks, Job Hazard Analyses, and…well the list goes on and on. Safety professionals need to be mindful of Parkinson’s Law and reduce both the number of tasks and the length allotted to that time.  Time is money and every task performed in the name of safety had better see a threefold return on the time it consumes.

Occam’s Razor

“We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.”

Occam’s Razor has been bastardized and reconstituted to the point where many people believe it to be “the simplest explanation is usually correct”. Safety professionals need to heed the advice as originally written and shun the adulterated version.  Basically safety professionals need to draw no conclusions and stay focused on researching the root cause of injuries and suspend any preconceived notions about the situations;.


[1] Actually this is NOT Murphy’s Law (Murphy had numerous laws and “ everything that can go wrong will go wrong” is in fact a direct quote of the older and lesser known Sod’s Law but most people wrongly attribute it to Murphy so this gives me the opportunity to pander to the great unwashed while still being a pedantic know-it-all jerk.

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