By Phil La Duke
I broke up with Facebook recently; it wasn’t because of any grand drama, rather I got sick of the never ending arguments where emotional outbursts passed as appropriate responses to logical arguments. It got me thinking of the old Joel Barker paradigm. The scientific definition of the word “paradigm” is basically archaic; it exists only in the vocabularies of self-important know-it-alls like me and a handful of truly enlightened souls who understand and fear the danger of its savage power. In science a paradigm is a belief held so fiercely that one will dismiss all evidence to the contrary.
Every urban legend sounds reasonable at first blush, and that’s why people believe it, as the more the story agrees with people’s world view them more tightly they cling to it, and the tighter they cling to it the more likely they will develop a paradigm that will cause them to miss the truth. Never is this more true than in worker safety, where we many still believe in the questionable research of an insurance actuary from the 1920’s who believed in eugenics so fiercely that he listed “worker ethnicity” as the root cause of injuries, took no notes, didn’t interview a single front-line worker, relied solely on anecdotal data from supervisors. People believe it because they want to believe it, giving little thought to whether or not it’s true. This particular brand of zealotry has become so inculcated into the collective subconscious of the safety field (if not society as a whole) that we practically boil tar and gather feathers at the merest suggestion that threatens our love of this pagan god.
It’s easy to see why we believe this steaming pile of dung so fervidly we’ve spouted it so long and with such authority to reverse ourselves know would be beyond embarrassment. For the snake oil salesmen who have built fortunes shoveling this intellectual manure it means the jig is up and they will have to go back to selling discount furniture to people to poor and desperate to admit that they are being ripped off. For others it is equally a career ender, but it really needs to stop. This is the organizational equivalent of treating syphilis with heavy metals 100 years after the discovery that penicillin is far more effective at treating it and can even cure it.
We’ve gotten sloppy as a field and the consequences could be dire. We proudly boast that incidents are down world-wide (conveniently ignoring that many risky jobs have been outsourced to small firms that are exempt from many regulatory requirements because to hold them accountable would impose an unfair onus on small businesses, unlike the presumably completely just onus placed on small families who lose a bread winner.) but in too many cases we are claiming a victory in a battle we weren’t really fighting—that is REPORTED injuries are down, but who sure are we that injuries themselves are down.
It’s easy to look at our own experience and extrapolate it as universal. This is especially true of the dullards and dimwits who send me hate mail and post snide comments insisting that because the safety BINGO works at their company it is proof that it works everywhere. It’s easier to fall in love with snake oil or plain good luck that makes you look like a star in your boss’s eyes than it is to fall in love with the much younger beautiful woman who tells you that you’re the best looking man she’s ever seen.
The point is, and I have, I admit, belabored it to the point of flogging it, we can’t let what we believe so incredibly deeply, interfere with our ability to see the beyond evidence to the contrary. We can’t let that which we have been taught prevent us from seeing the truth in emerging thought. I’m not advocate we chase each new fad like a kitten chasing butterflies, but we can’t remain staid in our thinking, not when lives are on the line.
Every day a new challenge presents itself in worker safety from nanotechnology that is shaped so closely to silica and asbestos molecules that they present the very real threat that they will cause the same kinds of safety issues to ill effects of chemicals that are currently thought to be benign, and yet so little of the emerging safety thought leadership is based on credible research using scientific methods. We need to test our theories with the same rigor that engineers and medical researchers test their theories, and we have to stop doing a half-ass job doing incident investigation that end with facile conclusions simply because the fit with our low expectations of the intellectual capabilities of workers.
In too many cases, people in the safety field present opinion as fact and accept facts as true simply because they fit with our world-view instead and forsake and even deride any other facts that don’t support our beliefs.
We have moved from the Information Age into the Misinformation Age where healing crystals are given the same credulity as antibiotics. Robots and automation have become pagan gods incapable of mistakes while we view the worker as flawed by choice. Mistakes are no longer tolerated; people are treated as anything less than perfection is there fault.
I have seen safety investigations that have concluded by the most specious arguments all injuries can ultimately be traced back to unsafe behaviors. Those who make this argument further state that all injuries are predictable and preventable. The argument has been made ad nauseum; and qualified and re-qualified so that the answer given fits within the asker’s paradigm. IF people performed with perfect reliability (i.e. exactly the same way every time) and IF the people always performed without distraction and in accordance with the Standard Operating Procedures, and IF the process is sufficiently robust enough to stay within very tight control limits, and IF the machines are sufficiently maintained to prevent wear and the associated degradation of performance and IF…well the list goes on and I think I have made my point. Then we can achieve zero incidents and zero harm and sustain this utopian workplace forever, but if any one of those statements is untrue then the outcomes are unpredictable and while zero harm may result, in these cases, it is the product of luck, or magic, or some other unseen and unknowable force, and meanwhile risk lurks like a panther waiting to pounce on its prey.