“Naïve science” plagues mining and oil & gas cultures
The energy sector finds itself in this very situation. Bloomberg Business Week presents the example of Massey Coal1, which had contracts to sell coal at a price 50 percent below the benchmark contract. That put added pressure on the company to prioritize cost and productivity over safety. Bloomberg illustrates this pressure through a telling memo from CEO Blankenship, who was quoted as saying, “If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers, or anyone else to do anything other than run coal, you need to ignore them and run coal. This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that coal pays the bills.”
My intention here is not to focus on Massey but rather to present a salient example that has received the most attention in the press. Other companies in the sector are under similar pressures.
The energy sector presents an interesting case for safety professionals because of some unique characteristics. In the mining industry, where entire extended families become miners generation after generation, a majority of the workers in any mine often grew up in the mining culture. As children, they learned how things were done by watching veteran miners’ behavior as they left for and returned from work and told stories over the dinner table.
One consequence of this process is naïve science.
Naïve science is when someone develops an understanding of the world based on an intuitive analysis that fits his or her real-life perceptions but may not be scientifically accurate.
In mining, this is compounded by the fact that miners grew up watching practices that predate OSHA and MSHA (the Mine Safety and Health Administration), scientific understanding of lung disease and strict safety regulations. Further, much of this experience occurred before miners-to-be learned much science in school.
Practices that fit their intuitive scientific knowledge and were “how things always were done” became fixed in their minds. Even as safety science advanced and the technology to protect workers developed, rookie miners felt that if a practice was OK for their predecessors, then it was OK for them. These practices stuck despite the best efforts of the safety team, especially in light of tight budgets and the pressures to maximize productivity. A recent study in Australia found that miners who had been working in the mines the longest had the least ability to recognize hazards.2
Surprisingly, this may even be the case when several members of the miner’s extended family had succumbed to black lung or asbestosis. In one coal mine where I was recently involved in a safety project, a miner revealed that he only wore his respirator when the coal dust was visible. He learned this from watching veteran miners’ behavior when he first started working.
It becomes a real challenge for a safety department to overcome this kind of ingrained practice, especially when it can be justified by the miners’ naïve scientific understanding. It seems intuitively obvious that visible dust is dangerous and one should wear a respirator. But invisible dust doesn’t have the same visceral effect, despite all of our scientific evidence that it is even worse because the small particles flow deeper into the lungs. Naïve science is often resistant to training because at a certain level it just makes sense.
A second attribute of the energy sector that requires specific attention from safety professionals is the prevalence of remote locations.
For example, many gas drilling platforms are positioned miles out to sea. Coal mines can extend for miles underground. There can be a strong sense among remote workers of being out of sight and out of mind from the rest of the world. Health care seems like a remote concern. Government regulation is far away.
For example, a recent study3 on offshore Norwegian vessels found that the vagueness of safety increased risk by reducing compliance. Supervisors know that for OSHA to send in an inspector, even an unannounced surprise inspection, the workplace will have plenty of advanced notice to dress up the worksite.
When the pressure to cut costs is presented as the only way to save jobs, the temptation to take shortcuts can be intense. I am not suggesting that any safety professional would intentionally sacrifice the safety and health of their workers; unlike some domains in the developing world where regulations are weak and there is little intention to create a safe culture and zero risk tolerance. But a small cut corner here and another small cut there can add up to unintended levels of risk.
For example, in many of the coal mines I have reviewed, it could take over an hour to get up to the surface and get a new filter for a respirator when a replacement was needed. Some miners would wipe off the one they had and wait until lunchtime or their next shift to get a new one. No one ever told them to do this, but it made sense to them at the time. Naïve science led them astray, and the remoteness of the location made it harder for safety professionals to identify and correct the problem.
What is the alternative?
How do we overcome naïve science, especially in cases like the energy sector when there are remote locations and extreme cost constraints?
It would be nice if there were a silver bullet but the realistic solution is to implement a focused safety program that recognizes the presence of naïve scientific understanding and is specifically designed to overcome it.
And there needs to be a strong resistance to taking “no” for an answer. OSHA provides materials on the development of effective safety programs.4 MSHA has an extensive set of training materials specifically tailored to the mining environment5 that can be used as a starting point. But in the end, safety professionals in the energy sector often need to work a little harder than colleagues in other sectors to overcome the presence of naïve science and the prevalence of remote locations and to achieve acceptable levels of worker safety.