Nine Objections to the Manifesto for Reality-based Safety Science (crosspost from LinkedIn)
At the request of forum admin, I'm reposting this article from LinkedIn. The original article and comments can be found at
If you are reading this article because you are curious about the "Manifesto for Reality-based Safety Science", then you may be disappointed. At the time of publication of this article, the manifesto does not yet exist. It’s a future thing, that may or may not materialise.
And yet, I am quite confident that I already know how people will react, at least on LinkedIn. I am confident, because these are the same reactions that people have to every new idea in safety. So, to save time for all of us, I thought I’d outline and address the objections before they appear. If you think it’s a little unfair for me to rebut articles or comments before I’ve actually read them, well, congratulations on your recent membership of LinkedIn. It’s a fun, polite, well-informed community, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy your time here.
For everyone else, hopefully these objections have some familiarity, but also cause a little discomfort. Please resist the understandable urge to troll me in the comments. Please also join me in a game of “spot the objection” bingo next time you read a post about safety.
1. You sure told them (but of course this doesn’t apply to me)
Any time someone criticises the status quo, there are an awful lot of people who don’t consider themselves to be part of the group being criticised. This is something that the “Safety Differently” movement has struggled with. What, exactly, is Safety Differently different from?
“You can’t possibly be talking about me”, think many practitioners, “because you’re talking about outdated and unhelpful safety practices, and I’m not outdated and helpful. You must be talking about someone else”.
This isn’t a problem unique to safety. I’ve encountered the same phenomenon when people are criticising religion - “yes, I see your point, I’m glad I’m not one of those sorts of Christians”; management – “yes, a lot of those other managers are terrible”; and academia – “yes, those other academics have got their heads stuck in the clouds”.
When a group first comes under criticism, many existing members of that group were blind to the problems. So once they realise a problem may exist, they see it in other people before they recognise it in themselves.
My response (the polite version): If you are reading a critique, you won’t learn from it unless you assume that the critique applies to you. We all recognise biases and errors in others easier than we recognise them in ourselves. Whenever I write critically, I am speaking at least in part to prior versions of myself, exhorting myself to be better.
My response (the blunt version): Even if you don’t agree with what I’m saying, please at least do me the courtesy of recognising that I'm trying to insult you.
2. You’re talking about that other kind of safety, right?
I am an engineer by original training, and I spent a lot of my career involved in the design and assurance of safety-critical systems. My more recent work concerns more physical operational work. For the purpose of understanding organisations, safety practices, and research methods, I see very little difference between managing the safety of design work and managing the safety of operational work. Organisations use very similar strategies for both, with similar social and technical difficulties. Ultimately, they are usually concerned with the safety of the exact same operational scenarios.
An easy and lazy way to avoid thinking about the past 20 years of knowledge development in Safety Science is to assume that it speaks to “health and safety” instead of to safety engineering. This is a specialised version of the “you sure told them” objection.
My response (the polite version): Absent evidence to the contrary, your “fault tree”, “human factors analysis” or “safety case” is fundamentally no different from a confined-space safe work method statement. Please don’t assume that just because the example involves someone getting their hands dirty, that the theory and evidence doesn’t speak to your own work.
My response (the blunt version): Please just assume that no matter what example I used, you, personally, were who I had in mind when I wrote the insulting bits.
3. This isn’t anything new
The human brain loves to make sense of new things by relating them to things that we already know. If there’s no existing “hook” in our memory to attach new knowledge to, it’s hard to remember it. So when we encounter a new idea, we start by focussing on those parts of the idea that are most familiar to us. The risk is that we over-emphasise the familiarity, and don’t focus on the novelty.
I made this mistake myself recently when a colleague was explaining a new way to think about leadership strategies. They introduced the idea by talking about safety climate, and my brain imported all of my previous assumptions and beliefs, including simple things like the ways words like “behaviour”, “culture”, and “leadership” are used within safety climate discourse. It seemed like my colleague was just re-hashing old ideas that I had already considered and rejected. It was only after I consciously thought “What if safety climate isn’t the right label? What if I just ignored the fact that they’d used that term?” that I began to appreciate that the idea was novel and interesting. I’d focussed on the small part of the idea that was familiar to me, and so it had seemed like there was nothing new.
This objection is particularly powerful when combined with “this doesn’t apply to me”. If you don’t recognise that it’s you I’m talking about, you are more inclined to see my criticisms as familiar things that you’ve thought or said yourself.
My response (the polite version): Everything is new. If you routinely read things for the purpose of tossing them aside, you’ll never find those small nuggets of genuinely fresh ideas, points of view, or even ‘just’ new ways of putting things.
My response (the blunt version): If these ideas aren’t new to you, then you don’t have any excuse for the way you’ve been doing things, because I’m trying to tell you that you are wrong.
4. I agree with you, so I don’t need to listen
This one doesn’t seem like an objection at first, but it is a common strategy for deflecting new ideas. The strategy works by latching on to a few key phrases and vehemently agreeing with them, without engaging with any of the substance. The habit is most annoying when the person agrees vehemently with the headline, and then provides detail which shows that they really haven't read or understood any of the detail.
One of my colleagues returned from a conference recently, annoyed by the audience of sycophants who “loved his ideas” but had never taken the time to read one of his books or papers.
If you are reading one of my articles, then you should know that I have wrestled with the language. I have had peers review and criticise every sentence, often multiple times. I have lost sleep over which bits to put into the headings, in the knowledge that some people will read the headings and not the text.
My response (the polite version): If you like the headline, then read the article. If you think I’ve got something worthwhile to say, then please do me the courtesy of listening. I would much prefer to be heard and understood than to be agreed with.
My response (the blunt version): I don’t want to be on the same “side” as the ignoramuses, so please go agree with someone else.
5. I’m oblivious to what you said, but I feel the need to express myself
Speaking about old ideas is a classic defence mechanism for sucking the oxygen away from new ideas. This happens in every public space – new interesting speakers are drowned out by people who have been saying the same things for twenty years (and if you take time to listen, will tell you how proud they are to have been saying the same things for twenty years). It happens at safety conferences; it happens on LinkedIn.
What I’m referring to with this objection specifically, is the phenomena of directly responding to the new ideas by restating the old ones. The assumption appears to be that because the writer doesn’t agree with the old way of doing things, they mustn’t have heard about it.
I’ve read articles about how to move away from “Swiss Cheese Model” accident investigation, with comments describing the exact same methods that the writer was criticising. I’ve read articles about the problems with “safety culture” as a construct, followed by comments that explain what safety culture is. I've written articles myself complaining about safety engineering practices, only to be told that the solution is to do safety engineering.
My response (the polite version): Not every public space was created as a place for you to express yourself. Think about what the space is for, how it is being used, and whether you can add value to that original purpose, before you insert yourself into that space.
My response (the blunt version): If you ever stop talking, you might actually learn something.
6. You don’t care about safety
Something must be done...This is something...Therefore this must be done
Most people can recognise that this is a logical fallacy, even if they can’t put their finger on the exact reason the argument is flawed. Why is it, then, that so many safety people use arguments of the same form?
“I’ve been doing safety for twenty years. If you don’t think my practices work, I hope you never are in a position where you need to prevent a major accident”
Both the “something” argument and the “safety” argument assume that because the goal is worthy, the means to reach that goal must effective. This isn’t even an “the ends justify the means” argument, it’s a “the end is proof that the means work” argument.
Usually the argument goes a step further, and starts to question the motives of others. The objector thinks that if someone doesn’t agree with their methods, they must disagree with their goals. Caring about a goal is not evidence that the means to achieve that goal is worthwhile.
My response (the polite version): Caring about someone is only a virtue until it gets in the way of helping them. Then caring becomes a vice.
My response (the blunt version): If you really cared about safety you’d be far more concerned with making sure that what you were doing was actually helping.
7. I disagree with you. Here’s my CV instead of a good reason.
The most common form of this argument involves stating the number of years someone has been practicing safety. Occasionally it involves the fact that they have written books, or been on committees, or led massive safety improvements.
One of the fortunate things about safety is that major accidents are incredibly rare. They are far less common even than the conditions that cause them. There are thousands of safety practitioners who worked on projects or locations that might have been as bad as Bhopal, Texas City, Columbia, Fukushima, or 737Max, but where they just got lucky. By definition, none of us know whether or not we were one of those “got lucky” practitioners.
What we can say, is that anyone who is certain that they did a great job as a safety practitioner is insufficiently reflective, humble and curious about their own work.
Expertise matters. If you are giving me your resume to show me that you know what it’s like to be a safety practitioner, great. Your experience is interesting and valuable. Experience is not evidence for what works.
My response (the polite version): Personal experience is data, but be very careful about what questions that data can and can’t answer. You can’t prove counter-factuals from one case study.
My response (the blunt version): If you spent the last 30 years with the same lack of humility and curiosity that you’re showing now, that’s 30 years where you didn’t learn much.
8. Don’t make safety complicated. It’s just common sense
If our current explanations for how accidents happened were truly complete, then accidents would never happen. The only thing that is "simple" in safety is that we don't have causal closure, and probably never will have.
An explanation such as "we know what the right way to manage safety is, people just aren't doing it" invokes either a world where people are deliberately evil, or where "just aren't doing it" hides a mess of complexity that needs unravelling.
An explanation such as "people are just lazy" is as complete as "accidents happen because they happen" - it provides simplicity only at the expense of accepting that there is nothing that can be done.
"Safety is just common sense" is so completely self-defeating a statement that I don't understand how any safety practitioner can invoke it with a straight face.
My response (the polite version): Sophisticated understanding can lead to simple actions. Over-simplification of thought leads to complicated situations. It's okay to admit that you don't understand something, and ask for it to be made clearer.
My response (the blunt version): Demanding that things be kept simple for your own peace of mind is childish.
9. Academics don’t know what the real world is actually like
I'm constantly bemused by the idea that some people have that academics live in weird fairy palaces separated from the mundane plane of existence. Possibly we commute through dimensional portals that strip us of memories of the real world, so that we can do our theoretical musing uncontaminated by own experiences as real people living real lives and doing real work.
If anything, Safety Science suffers from a lack of career academics. The imbalance between practitioners-who-teach and professional researchers causes constant structural problems resulting in entire teams and programs appearing and disappearing at rate that doesn't assist with quality teaching or research. That's a topic for another post, though.
This objection misunderstands the way that practitioners and researchers have access to different types of knowledge. Often we get this exactly backwards - calling on academics for knowledge that should come from practitioners, and from practitioners for knowledge that should come from researchers. That's one of the topics in the manifesto. Watch this space.
My response (the polite version): If you don't think research is sufficiently taking your experiences into account, then please, join in with the research. We'd love to have you as a researcher-participant. Just get ready for the idea that research isn't about pontificating about what you already know.
My response (the blunt version): You think you know more than I do about what I'm researching? Great. I study the causes of major accidents. I've never interviewed a cause before. Let's make a date.
As always, loving your work
What I think I've learned:
My current understanding of things may be (at least in part), incorrect;
I need to look for and enjoy feedback;
I need to look for the new, not confirmation of what I already think I know;
I need to listen and hear what is being said;
Social media and other people's articles are not a toilet wall to just place graffiti wherever I like;
I need to be open to the fact that not everything I'm doing may be helping;
Experience can be just doing it wrong for ages;
There's a difference between simplification and simple (and I may not fully understand what that is);
Learning from safety science is awesome; deal with it!
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