Safety Blindness is an increasing
problem due to our success in improving safety standards over the
past 20 years. As a consequence, some simply have no fear as
the just don’t see the danger they are in and the risks they are
taking. One solution is less “arm around the shoulder “and
more “blood and guts”. What do you think?
1. Those of you with a lexicon or
crossword mind will have immediately spotted the play on words in
the Title. Ironic or what! It is, in my view, the
ultimate irony that we are increasingly vulnerable to a safety
phenomenon which is a direct consequence of our considerable
success in improving health and safety standards over the last 20
years. We should not be blinded by that success to a factor
which is increasingly frustrating to the many worthy souls who try
to get people to do the right thing in health and safety.
2. Indeed, I think the time has come to wake
up to the reality of the situation and give the phenomenon a
somewhat chilling, but truthful title “Safety
3. I have been told many times that
“Things we used to do years ago, we would never get
away with now!” Such words usually finds a quorum of
knowing nods from people who were old enough to personally know of
what was being said.
4. However, I believe it is a certainty
that they would also have had first hand experience of one of the
numerous tragedies which were an inevitable consequence of the
“things we used to do” That was usually death
or serious injury of a colleague or friend which would haunt the
individual for many years after. As someone graphically told
me once “The stench of death will never leave me – my
conscience won’t let it”.
5. It is our collective failing that health
and safety generally has a negative press. The Nanny Society
vision of “kids, conkers and goggles” is much more
interesting that recognising the considerable improvements made in
health and safety over the last 20 years.
6. To prove my point, I anticipate that the
least well remembered part of this article is that fatalities in
the construction industry are fewer than half of what they were 10
years ago. Your condemnation of me for being boring, will be
heightened when I rattle off the fact that, during that period,
construction activity has greatly increased. “A dichotomy of
less than passing interest”, I hear you say.
7. Having bored you to the edge of submission,
I will tease you by saying that our ability to maintain such an
improvement into the future is jeopardised by the success of the
8. The reason for my heresy? –
Individuals are increasingly no longer fearful of what might
happen to them, particularly a younger generation which has not
been exposed to the trauma of a serious accident, or the ultimate
consequence i.e. death.
...Safety Blindness can be fuelled by numerous factors, sometimes as simple as saying “It will never happen to me”...
9. I have watched the development of
behavioural science over recent years with great interest. In
passing, I believe it is reasonable to question whether the focus
has always been in the right direction i.e. it is invariably
looking at the actions of the workforce. In my view there is
often a need to look up the management chain, not down it i.e. to
those in control who allow/encourage/turn a blind-eye to unsafe
working. Indeed, much of my recent work has been helping
senior personnel focus on their own behaviour and the consequence
of that on others, be it good, bad or indifferent.
10. I readily accept and applaud the good work
which has emerged from behavioural science. Many have
benefited from it. However, it has not overcome the
phenomenon which is Safety Blindness. The reality is that,
despite any amount of behavioural study, some people simply don’t
see it. Safety Blindness can be fuelled by numerous factors,
sometimes as simple as saying “It will never happen to
me”. Of course that view is regularly expressed in many areas
of life, the most obvious being when driving our cars.
However, I believe that such, often macho, declarations shield a
clear understanding of the consequences of a road accident.
There can be few who have not been touched by the tragedy which is
a serious road crash involving a loved-one, friend or
11. Even with the knowledge of the above, we
regularly judge it appropriate to graphically illustrate the
consequence of such an accident through television, press and
posters showing the damage that can be done, despite it being a
wholly familiar environment that we all take for granted.
12. I have to say that part of the politically
correct trend associated with behavioural science is a tendency to
shield individuals from the “blood and guts” approach, in
favour of putting an arm around the miscreant individual with the
encouragement to persuade him/her to reflect on the effect of an
accident on others e.g. family, children etc.
13. Whilst sympathetic to the value of such an
approach, I increasingly suspect that it has blinded individuals to
the consequence and reality of major injury or death. I know,
from personal experience of investigating literally thousands of
accidents over the last 34 years that the vision of that
consequence comes flooding back when I see a particular work
activity. When that happens, Safety Blindness is
rapidly replaced by Safety Culture i.e. the need for the individual
to take ownership, as much as for the supervisor, manager etc.
14. The answer is of course in the middle, a
balance of behavioural approach between the arm around the shoulder
approach and a graphic and hard-hitting vision of the ultimate
consequence. The latter approach can be ugly and is
invariably unpleasant. However, it is undoubtedly an
eye-opener which will play its part in curing the increasingly
challenging phenomenon of Safety Blindness.
15. Life is a compromise, health and safety is
a compromise. That is not to say that we compromise health
and safety. It is simply to say that the answer is somewhere
in the middle. Next time you see someone doing something
daft, it is likely that they “have no fear rather than being
fearless”. Viewing it in that subtle but different way,
will lead you to recognise the symptoms of "Safety
Blindness". The reality is that they simply don’t see it!!
What do you think?
Let me know by clicking this link.
Director of Health and Safety
Capita Symonds Limited