Health and safety and human behaviour

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Questioning health and safety from a behavioural perspective.

To manage health and safety successfully a degree of common sense from employees is essential. True or false?

Most people answer 'True' because they think that everyone should apply a little common sense to what they do. But the correct answer is 'False', and the reasons for this are as follows.

What is common sense? What is it based on? There is a tendency for us to believe it is the obvious understanding of the basics of health and safety - which everyone should know.

However, when asked questions such as what is common sense, and when and how do we get it, things get a little complicated. Usually the discussion leads to the conclusion that it is based on personal experience gained in life in general and work in particular.

So is one person's common sense the same as another's? No. Is it the same as a third person's? No. So what is 'common' about it? Nothing. In fact 'common sense' is not nearly as 'common' as people think it is.

To rely on common sense is an 'accident waiting to happen' or, in other words, a foreseeable accident (you can read more about foreseeable accidents in our previous article). We must never assume the person understands the hazards and risks, because the result will make an 'ass of you and me' [you can remember this with the mnemonic ass-u-me].

Just remember that training is the key, not assumption. This important point can be simply illustrated with the example of children crossing the road. Although it is 'obvious' how to do so safely, we would never allow children to cross on their own until they had 'road sense' (ie they had been trained).

Accidents at work will always happen because you cannot legislate for how people will behave. True or false?

Again, people usually respond with 'True', but the correct answer to this is also 'False', as explained below.

If we really believed the answer was true we would indirectly be pinning the blame for the accident on the behaviour of the person. Of course, it is true that a person's behaviour does contribute to the accident because the immediate cause of any accident is two elements coming together (conditions and behaviours), and these are known as the hazards. It is a well known fact that for an accident to occur a number of these hazards will be present and they all contribute to create a cumulative effect (we call this the domino theory).

However, the aforementioned are only the immediate causes; the underlying causation and the most important causes are the root causes. Take the example of a person who slips on oil that has leaked from a machine. The immediate causes (hazards) could be oil, machine, not looking, walking, smooth floor, poor lighting, etc. After the accident the oil will be cleaned away in an attempt to prevent a recurrence, but the root causes must also be addressed. In this case the root causes could be a complete lack of maintenance, poor maintenance (no training) or an incorrect operating procedure for the machine.

It is the root causes that are controlled by management (design, planning, training, procedures, maintenance, communication, etc), and it is these that determine the success or failure of health and safety in the workplace. Furthermore, because senior managers determine the culture of the organisation, they will influence the behaviour of the people within their jurisdiction. Like it or not, although we are all individuals, we fall in line with the culture of our company and follow the rules (otherwise we would soon be out of a job).

In conclusion, therefore, the managing director can certainly legislate how his or her employees will behave.