Safety, Commonsense, and Nonsense

Safety, Commonsense and Nonsense


“Safety is nothing more than using common sense! In the aftermath of accidents, 85% are found to have been preventable.”

“According to safety professionals, 4 in 5 serious injuries are the result of workers not being sensible on the job and taking unnecessary chances.”

These “facts” are often touted as part of safety vendors’ “awareness” programs. More alarming is when similar remarks are heard from managers and safety professionals.  A recent LinkedIn post showed a woman, who was attempting to exit a building, walking face-first into some unmarked, clear glass panels. 

While some commented, quite reasonably, that the exit door should have been marked, many others responded by professing the incident “hilarious” or made judgments such as, “Dumb” “Idiot” or “What happened to natural selection?”.

I observe this disdain and lack of empathy from “safety professionals” in disturbing frequency. The message at its core is that some workers just do not have “common sense.” Why do so many in a profession created for the care of employees hold this view that the average worker is a clueless liability?

The following examples will attempt to explain how this mentality is so counterproductive.

You Cannot Count on Commonsense.

Common sense – is there such a thing? Webster tells us there is and defines it as, “sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts.”  Who am I to argue with Webster? Certainly, all of us make what we consider practical generalizations and use heuristics (i.e., rules of thumb) to make everyday decisions. We regularly encounter opportunities to shortcut processes by making quick, practical judgments based on life experience. Without this ability, you have the equivalent of situational Alzheimer’s – continually reinventing responses to even the most routine situations. However, do we all share the same experience? Does everyone practice the same generalizations (i.e., common sense)? Common sense is not some immutable concept. What people perceive as “common knowledge” is incredibly variable. Not so many years ago, keeping women from voting, holding public office, taking jobs outside the home, or even running marathons was considered by many to align with common sense. The usefulness of common sense for any practical, verifiable, or repeatable reasoning is rendered highly questionable at best by its variability and subjectivity.

My bigger problem with using (mostly misusing) the term common sense in the practice of safety is it oversimplifies safety in some profoundly consequential ways.  To equate safety to common sense blatantly ignores the system, management, and cultural factors that are the real drivers of safety (for good or ill), putting the onus on the worker.  But safety is much more than “fixing” the worker.  Nothing contributes more to safety than strong management and leadership from the top. Good management is an art and a skill that few excel in, and those who are not especially good managers, do not necessarily lack common sense, just the skill set necessary for effective management. 

Safety practice may still be defined as little more than controlling the unsafe and careless acts of employees in the average organization, but top-performing companies have countered this view for decades.  Safety experts such as Dan Petersen, Dekker, Reason, Manuele, and Deming have all made convincing arguments that unsafe/careless acts and human error are merely symptoms of deeper trouble in the system, rather than the cause. Seeing safety as primarily (or exclusively) a worker common sense issue ignores its complexity, demonstrating an ignorance of the way safety interacts with and is shaped by systems, the work environment, and culture.

Why bother wasting management attention if safety is equivalent to common sense? Why are we spending money on safety experts? Can we not simply remind employees (when their lack of access to a company’s storehouse of commonsense becomes apparent) to be more careful? This perception designates safety as a simple behavioral problem, readily fixable by means of unsustainable and frequently counterproductive tactics such as motivational training, motivational speakers, disciplinary actions, establishing rules and “cardinal” rules, incentives, and “awareness” campaigns. Ignoring the need for manager and organization behavioral accountability, the bottom line becomes the need to fix the “childish” and “careless” workers. To blame the worker and relegate safety to a simple behavior problem is to take the easy road. Various vendor-supplied approaches or other expensive efforts (that often treat employees like children) are unsustainable, and typically leave systemic root cause issues unaddressed. Would we ever label production as commonsense, trivializing it the way we do safety?

Experience in safety has shown me that when people, aided by 20/20 hindsight, cite a lack of common sense as the cause of an incident, the statement made is that someone, or some group, simply is not as smart as they are. Certainly, people do dumb things. We all do. Only the most arrogant deny it. Exemplary safety performance companies, however, understand that people make mistakes and design their operations to absorb those lapses, minimizing the potential for harm.

Author Bio

Jim Loud

Mr. Loud’s over 40 years of safety experience includes 15 years with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) where he served as the supervisor of Safety and Loss Control for a large commercial nuclear facility and later as manager of the corporate nuclear safety oversight body for all three of TVA’s nuclear sites. At Los Alamos National Laboratory he headed the independent assessment organization responsible for safety, health, environmental protection, and security oversight of all laboratory operations.

Mr. Loud is a regular presenter at national and international safety conferences. He is the author of numerous papers and articles. Mr. Loud is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP), and a retired Certified Hazardous Materials Manager (CHMM). He holds a BBA from the University of Memphis, an MS in Environmental Science from the University of Oklahoma and an MPH in Occupational Health and Safety from the University of Tennessee.

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