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PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: Common sense is nonsense

July 31, 2002
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Last month my ISHN article addressed the concept of "root cause." I wanted to convince you that safety professionals look for the root cause of an incident when there is not one to be found. Plus, they do this with techniques that couldn't determine the single cause of an incident if there was one.

Searching for a root cause through interviews and surveys inhibits the very kind of frank and open conversation needed to identify the various environmental and behavioral factors that need to be identified and addressed.

In research terms, a cause-and-effect relationship cannot be found without manipulating at least one specific independent variable and observing the impact on a certain dependent variable. Such research activity is not beyond the expertise of a safety pro, but it is seldom performed. Why?

A straightforward process

Part of the problem is obviously a lack of experience or perceived skills in safety management research. But the methods needed to conduct and interpret basic field research are straightforward and convenient. Line workers engage in this type of research as part of their behavior-based safety process. My associates at Safety Performance Solutions call this the "DO IT" process.

First, specific behaviors to increase or decrease in frequency are operationally defined (D). Then these behaviors are objectively and systematically observed (O). After obtaining a baseline level of occurrence, a particular intervention (I) strategy is implemented. These behaviors are continuously observed and recorded during the intervention period, testing (T) the impact or effect of the intervention technique.

Shift that paradigm

There seems to be an overriding notion among safety pros that managing injury prevention requires only good common sense. So we have safety incentive programs, root-cause analyses, discipline procedures, and corrective action plans that do not make a workplace safer. Many of these programs do more harm than good.

How do I know this? Research. Through objective observation and systematic application of the DO IT process, researchers have demonstrated what works and what doesn't work to get people involved in safety-related activities.

My students learn quickly that psychology is not common sense when they perform worse than desired on an exam. But safety pros may never learn the fallacy of their common sense approach unless they conduct a thorough and objective evaluation of their safety management procedures. And this won't happen without a paradigm shift in how the safety profession operates.

A non-scientific approach

Here's what I mean: A "research" project detailed in Professional Safety magazine attempted to predict the future of the safety profession by collecting the opinions of 120 American Society of Safety Engineers chapter presidents. Of this group, 54 gave their opinions on a survey that asked the participants to identify "up to 10 trends you feel the safety profession will experience between now and Dec. 31, 2009."

An initial list of 168 different predictions, obtained from this survey, was returned to the participants with a request that they identify their top 25 predictions. A total of 35 safety pros from the first group completed this round, which resulted in a list of 46 predictions.

Then, those who participated in Round Two were asked to rate each of the 46 predictions on a one-to-four scale. Statistical tests were performed on the ratings received from 33 remaining participants to determine whether the opinions changed significantly between the last two rounds. The list of 46 predictions was then published in PS as a "valuable planning tool for safety professionals."

I hope your common sense tells you this list of 46 opinions should be given minimal credibility and should not be used to plan anything important. It violates a basic principle of the scientific method - empiricism. Real researchers rely on direct experience that is objectively recorded and evaluated, not hearsay or other peoples' opinions.

Let's consider four more qualities of scientific research:

1) Objectivity

Research procedures must be documented so other individuals can observe the same variables and arrive at the same results. Scientific research involves careful and unbiased documentation of exactly what happened and precisely what was observed.

2) Self-correction

DO IT is a continuous improvement process. Interventions are progressively made more effective and new behaviors are defined and observed. Never-ending improvement epitomizes science. Empirical evidence is constantly discovered that contradicts prior knowledge and opinion.

Scientists are open to change, and most importantly they modify their opinions and knowledge as a result of reliable research results. In this case, "common sense" is replaced or confirmed by knowledge that is founded on applications of the scientific method.

3) Progressiveness

Unlike human activity in the arts and humanities, science is progressive. At any one time the knowledge obtained from research is tentative and is continuously tested to advance its accuracy or its ability to improve quality of life. In contrast, while paintings, music, literature and fashion in clothes certainly change and influence behaviors, attitudes and culture, such change is usually not considered progress. Quality of life does not advance through periodic changes in popular clothes, music or art.

4) Developing & testing theory

Theory has two basic functions: a) to guide the design and interpretation of research; and b) to integrate and organize facts from research into parsimonious concepts or principles.

For example, developing an observation and data-collection process to evaluate a theory is deductive - the research design defines a specific set of circumstances inferred from a certain theory or hypothesis. Results support the theory, reject the theory, or suggest how to refine the theory.

Interpreting research data as supporting or not supporting a theory-derived hypothesis is inductive, because now we are deriving general principles from a particular research observation. Reasoning expands from the more specific to the more general. Inductive interpretation of research observations often leads to theory change and the derivation of another hypothesis to test.

Sometimes, after successive theory testing, data interpretation and theory refinement, research enables you to objectively refine a theory or set of principles to apply in real-world circumstances. For occupational safety and health, this means research uncovers an environmental manipulation, process or intervention that can truly reduce the probability of unintentional injury.

"Do it" now

One of my favorite quotes from W. Edwards Deming is, "There's no substitute for knowledge." In my "opinion," profound knowledge for safety management should come exclusively from scientific research, not from intuition or common sense. People with a research perspective continuously change their common sense according to empirical, objective, and progressive information.

Research has shown some current common sense or theory applied to safety management is seriously flawed. But research can improve these approaches. This requires a paradigm shift for many safety pros - a change in perspective based on embracing the qualities of scientific research reviewed here.

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