Are We Blundering Our Way Through Safety?

By Phil La Duke

 

I recently finished Zachary Shore’s Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions. Shore is a historian is an associate professor of national security affairs at the Naval Post Graduate School and a senior fellow at the UC Berkley Institute of European Studies.  In Blunder Shore examines why historical notables make mistakes even though they are well educated and of above average intelligence.

Central to Shore’s analysis is the concept of cognitive traps, and these traps have eerie parallels to how the prevalent theories of worker safety have gone of the rails.

Shore identifies seven “cognitive traps”, that is, seven mental states that can cause people to make misjudgments or “blunders”.  The cognitive traps that Shore identifies are: Exposure Anxiety, Causefusion, Flatview, Cure-Allism, Infomania, Mirror Imaging, and Static Cling. Each of these cognitive traps can be seen in the root of most of the major misconceptions of safety: that 96% of all worker injuries are caused by unsafe behavior.

Exposure Anxiety

Exposure Anxiety is the phenomena where our judgment is impaired because we are afraid of appearing weak if we don’t act.  In safety, this manifested in the industry that grew in response to the National Safety Council’s findings.  Operations leadership embraced these findings because they matched what managers wanted to believe: that the root cause of injuries was essentially the fault of the worker.  If this belief were true than managers who didn’t address worker’s unsafe behaviors would indeed be seen as weak, ineffective, and incompetent.  In this environment business experts were quick to fill the void created when an unanswered is identified.

Causefusion

Causefusion is a contraction of the words “Cause” and “Confusion”.  Shore explains that far too often people confuse cause and effect with correlation.  In the National Safety Council study, it found a correlation between worker’s unsafe behavior and worker injuries.  Assuming a 4% margin of error in their study (an assumption I have no scientific basis for making, but I honestly can’t envision a circumstance where there isn’t a perfect correlation between unsafe behavior and injuries, given that the fact that someone being injured as the result of a behavior by definition makes said behavior unsafe. Furthermore, it’s impossible to get injured if you aren’t doing SOMETHING.  Shore illustrates causefusion through dietary links to cancer.  The example he cites is the correlation between diets rich in beta-carotene and reduced incidence of cancer.  Once the studies were made public people quickly ascribed a causal relationship between beta-carotene and reduced risk of cancer. In other words, people widely began to believe that beta-carotene would prevent cancer.  Subsequent studies showed correlation between beta-carotene supplements and an increased risk of cancer. When we mistake causal relationships with cause and effect we run the risk of building methodologies that are fundamentally flawed.  While there is an irrefutable correlation between unsafe behavior and worker injuries, there is scant little research that proves a causal relationship.  Simply put, we cannot PROVE that unsafe behavior cause injuries and therefore attacking it as a cause is flawed and likely to cause unpredictable outcomes.

Flatview

Shore’s third cognitive trap that leads us to flawed conclusions is “flatview”.  Named after the Edwin A. Abbot short story, Flatworld.  In Flatworld the characters exist in a two dimensional world.  Shore uses this story to demonstrate the phenomenon where people cannot see beyond their own worldview.  We, according to Shore, see precisely what we want to see, or more accurately what we expect to see.  The clearest example of flatview is the persistent protection of theories and methodologies that are increasingly dubious.  As methodologies are criticized the flatviewing advocates refuse to consider any other course of action.

Cure-Allism

Cure-Allism is the practice of misapplying a solution or methodology that was successful in one situation to all subsequent situations. One need only to listen the claims of the providers of the latest safety fad to understand how deeply the safety profession is entrenched in Cure-Allism.  Even when proponents of a given methodology begrudgingly allow that some customization is appropriate they still make bold claims that their approach will work in “virtually every industry” and setting.  Cure-Allism also makes the magic bullet approach seem more palatable and reasonable, but it also leads us to make grievous errors in judgment about worker safety.

Infomania

Informania is the practice of hoarding information or selectively sharing only that information that supports one’s point.  Look at the mountain of research that advocates of a given approach will ignore, while sharing even the most specious arguments that support their methodology.  As long as we listen to the “informaniacs” we will continue to make costly blunders.

Mirror Imaging

Perhaps the most prevalent and dangerous cognitive trap is mirror imaging. Mirror imaging is when we make our decisions under the flawed assumption that other people will think like us, respond to stimuli, and approach situations the same way we would.  This manifests in safety all the time—from safety incentives to the way we approach training and job safety analysis. Even if we were able to modify the worker’s behaviors such that he or she would work more safely, we would have to overcome the very natural tendency to fall into the mirror imaging cognitive trap.

Static Cling

Shore calls the seventh and final cognitive trap, “static cling”.  In static cling our decision-making is impaired by our inability to accept change.  As the business climate changes, and let’s face it, the Great Recession has forever changed how business views worker safety, safety professionals must make a concerted effort to reinvent themselves and the safety function.  Many of the things that have served safety professionals for years will have to be discarded and new approaches must be explored and embraced.

At the heart of worker safety is sound decision making, and unless we can acknowledge our own flawed decision-making we can never hope to help workers to make better choices.  Zachary Shore does a wonderful job of exploring decision making and blunders through the lens of a historian and scholar.  I don’t do it justice; I highly recommend you giving it a read and working to see—and avoid—the mistakes we routinely make because of the cognitive traps into which we fall.

About workersafetynet
Phil La Duke is a top thought leader in worker safety, He was named by ISHN magazine to both it's Up & Comers in Safety Thought Leadership and to it's Power 100 list of the most influential people in worker safety world-wide. His aggressive plain-English, practical approach to worker safety makes him a popular and sometimes controversial speaker. In addition to writing this blog, LaDuke is a featured blogger for ISHN, a guest blogger to safetyrisk.au.com, a guest blogger to MonsterTHINKING.com, a monthly columnist for Fabricating and Metalworking magazine, and an occasional contributor to Facilities Safety Management Magazine, ISHN, and SQDCME magazine.

One Response to Are We Blundering Our Way Through Safety?

  1. Pingback: Are We Blundering Our Way Through Safety | Health and Safety Risk Management

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