Making mistakes is part of being human.

There are many factors that contribute to making mistakes, including inattention, lack of experience and over-confidence. In recent years, the field of behavior-based safety has exploded. Much of its focus is on assessing why people make mistakes, and what to do about it.

I attended an Ethics presentation at the ASSE Safety 2015 Conference last week. The presenter, a college professor, stated that one of the most common ethics complaints reported about newly-graduated safety professionals is their failure to admit to making mistakes.

In some ways, this is understandable.

Many young people today have grown up in a “zero tolerance” society - a society which treats any violation of a rule, minor or serious, as a punishable offense. In addition, the punishment for “zero tolerance” offenses is often disproportional to the behavior being punished. When mistakes lead to violations and violations lead to punishment, we should not be surprised when individuals hide their mistakes.

Unfortunately, there are serious consequences to hidden mistakes. It is impossible to fix a problem if you don’t know it exists. When mistakes are hidden, you can’t fix them. You need people to “self-report” when they mess up.

Perhaps we need to rethink the application of “zero tolerance” rules in situations where it is important to find and fix mistakes. This is particularly the case given that studies have shown that zero-tolerance policies may not be all that effective.