Safety is more than common sense

“Common sense” is a phrase regularly used to describe workplace health and safety.  More often than not the term is used dismissively.  This is part of the reason that the OHS profession struggles for legitimacy and why there is a constant sense of frustration in the profession and OHS regulators.

Safety may be seen as common sense but common sense is also the reason behind shortcuts that lead to death and injury.  (Look at the Darwin Awards for the effects of common sense)

Common Sense should be banned from the safety professional and business lexicon as it does not illuminate a problem nor explain the reasons for a decision or action.

Common Sense inhabits the same realm as “occupational hazard”.  Both terms do more harm to OHS management than help.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia
Categories Leadership, OHS, safety, Uncategorized, workplaceTags , , ,

21 thoughts on “Safety is more than common sense”

  1. I will just say this….

    I work for a CSG Operations company. We have some major potential safety hazards and injuries that happen in this industry which can be/are fatal.

    OH&S and Common Sense clash when we have situations like this – The metal tongs in the kitchen were replaced with plastic tongs due to the “potential” of someone picking up the tongs and instead of reaching for the biscuits (like the tongs are intended for) the person may decide to stick the tongs into the power socket which is in a nearby vicinity. I don’t know which one is worse, the fact that you would have to be mentally retarded to do such a thing or the fact that there is no physical way you could fit the tongs into the socket.

    That example there is why people laugh at the ridiculous of OH&S and it is easy to see the death of common sense when it comes to safety guidelines. It is a terrifying thought because when I am working on a major job in an area of my field where I rely on safety guidelines to keep me safe and alive it is easy to skim over them or ignore all together because ever single unnecessary detail is written down.

    We even have safety guidelines for opening gates! Seriously…

    1. Anita, I sympathise and can only say that any control measures need to be seen in the context of the particular work environment. If children were occasionally in the workplace, I would probably support some sort of power socket cover, as I had at home while my children grew. When I consulted for one of the prisons, it was necessary to anticipate self-harm which required strict and secure engineering solutions but unless there is a staff member who is likely to purposely try to electrocute themselves, the control measure of plastic tongs seems excessive.

  2. A SafetyAtWorkBlog reader has pointed out a new occurrence of the use of “common sense” by WorkSafe Victoria. Many parts of Australia have just experienced several days of temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius in metropolitan areas and on 8 January 2010 WorkSafe issued some advice on how to cope with working in such heat.

    The first bulletpoint in the media release was that

    “A practical and common-sense approach is essential.”

    Yes there were other practical bulletpoints but the common sense point cannot be implemented and is unnecessary.

    Over the last few days Australian TV news bulletins have shown hundreds of people wearing very little sunbaking on beaches. It is this “common sense” approach that the various cancer councils are competing against.

  3. Give me 5 operators and I show you 5 varying degrees, or absence of common sense. I may have missed it in previous blogs, but has anyone defined it. I regard the term common sense with almost as much despair as “Well, accidents will happen”.

    With regard to the electric FLT’s and the silence issue, reminds me of the guy who staggered out of a bar drunk, tripped over a warning cone in the middle of the pavement, kicked it into the gutter and subsequently fell down the hole in the pavement it was warning against. Remove one hazard and create another – now what was that SOP? Oh yes – Management of Change.

  4. Wow, what an eye opening experience. One thing is quite clear, our “values” of Occupational Health and Safety are many and varied as are the “tools of the trade”.

    Just researching my approach to “competency” for a fellow Safety Professional in Qatar who is now assigned to a Community Safety Officer position. In our Company, communication and relationships (not social networking) are the building blocks for team work within the department.

    When I was Company Safety Trainer, (in house), I realized very early that my attitude and convictions would be better passed along in the presentation as a personal message to all those attending. Again the problem of communication came up, so took the opportunity to use a translator for all the Safety Training courses.

    So here I am 15 years later with the www and the Age of blogging talking to Safety Professionals all over the world, in the age of Culture Advocates and Behavourialists.

    For those of you that don’t understand the concept of “at risk behaviour”, I would at least take the STOP Safety Training Program to heart and use it to your advantage.

    For those of you who have success stories, I encourage you to share the information with others outside your organization as we do on the www and including social networks (I am on LinkedIn, please feel free to drop me a line).

    I guess at the end of the day my comment as I use often here in the Middle East is Health and Safety is not “Rocket Science”! I prefer this over the use of common sense, because that may offend someone. But having said that my personal commitment to Health and Safety continues to the end wherein I at least will get my CRSP certification in order to maintain some “credibility” for the future as a Safety Advisor in a field I feel most comfortable and committed to.

    In closing, I can see I will be up against a lot of bureaucratic red tape when I return to the fold in Canada, so be it, at least the “Standards” of compliance are all the same in the companies, and should be understood by all the workers.

    Paul Koyich, CET (certified engineering technologist-chemistry), HSE Advisor,
    Al Khor Housing Community(pop.6000+),
    State of Qatar

  5. Darrin,

    By the way, I don’t know about your 20 years of experience and will not dismiss them.

    However, I hear OSHA use the phrase “common sense” often.
    They’ve said it to me – they’ve said it on the news – they’ve said it before congress – they’ve said it in NEP reports, and press releases, and just about every form of communication they have.

    Doesn’t help my respect for them as an organization.

    Want to start another conversation?
    How about the same way they slaughter the term “industry standard”?
    Isn’t that almost as nebulous as “common sense”?

    I know what people mean by industry standard but there are many situations where I think the phrase doesn’t do itself justice – – – many of them really aren’t as standard as they claim to be…

  6. In regards to “unsafe acts”

    It made me think even more about how fast technology is changing.

    Try this one on for size…

    My company has switched to some electric fork trucks due to the nature of our business and do you want to know what the first thing out of my employees mouths were? Honestly?
    They where scared they were going to get hit by one because they could not hear them running.
    Now, we haven’t had anyone get hit by them so I assume everyone has adapted well to their presence. However, I thought of this because if someone would have been hit by one in the first few days of their presence would that have been an “unsafe act” or a lack of “common sense”. NO WAY!

    Coming from the side of industry I think that people in OHS world sometimes forgot that even the implementation of new safety features can cause unsafe circumstances.

    Furthermore, this reminds me of another interesting paradigm between OHS and risk. We ran LP fork trucks forever and never had a single fork incident (fire, hit, tank accident, nothing) in a decade. We change to Electric per OSHA’s request to avoid the risk of fire in our environment and trade it for the daily risk of dropping a 5,000lb battery onto someones foot or getting acid splashed in their eye. A dozen or so of my employees now had to learn how to use a hoist and work with acid instead of just keeping their vehicle clean.

    Sometimes common sense conflicts with common sense.

    Sometimes the difference between two risks is too small to measure.

    Sometimes people (OSHA) will trade one risk for another just so they can look like they’re keeping busy…

    Sometimes it takes more than a general rule to asses a specific situation.

    They’re are a lot of GOOD general safety rules out there.
    They’re are also a lot of ignorant ones.

    1. Jesse

      The noise, or silence, of electric vehicles is an issue that is also raising concerns in organisations that represent the blind and sight-impaired.

      Australia’s OHS authorities have been campaigning for many years about the separation of pedestrian and forklift traffic areas. The latest information on this matter can be found at WorkSafe Victoria – This advice follows the hierarchy of controls by introducing a combination of engineering and administrative controls.

      Your workplace examples illustrate the importance of consulting with employees at the concept stage of any equipment improvements or at the development of hazard control options.

      Although I am not a fan of how “reasonably practicable” is often applied, the safety/risk trade-offs you illustrate look like they could have been better discussed so that the employees and the OHS regulator understand the reasons for your particular decisions.

      I agree that battery issues for electric forklifts are new hazards compared to traditional forklifts but there are a range of manual handling solutions for the battery handling. It may have been possible to choose a different electric forklift supplier who perhaps could supply an electric forklift that did not generate this new hazard. Toyota developed an integrated gas cylinder handling device for its forklifts so I am sure that one of the electrical forklift manufacturers is developing something similar.

  7. Jesse

    I agree with your point about OSHA referring to “common sense”. As some of the others have said above common sense may end the investigation of an incident prematurely.

    As someone who likes to talk safety and blog about it, I promote open and frequent communication. By doing so I am hoping to make “sense” more “common”, in one way. And in the discussion above, some of us are getting close to expanding the common sense of a company to its culture or organisational consciousness. Is this a legitimate extension?

    I am afraid I don’t buy into the “unsafe acts cause most of the incidents” position as I believe we should also be investigating what causes the unsafe acts.


  8. How ironic is that some folks are critical of common sense being used dismissively and yet are so dismissive of the phrase?

    I don’t buy into even camp: 1) common sense solves all, or 2) common sense is not so common and often harmful.

    However, I would much rather have folks exercising common sense then blinding following even the best procedure, checklist, etc. The former group will stop before placing themselves into danger even though they do not know how to overcome the hazard and the later will follow a lemming off an Artic cliff, if that is step no. 6, check, please.

  9. additional food for thought.
    There have been only a few times that I have heard the term “common sense” used in the 20+ years of working in OSH. This has been during incident investigations and assessments (inspections, audits, interventions, etc.). It is always associated with a “lagging indicator” type event. The person was at risk of injury to self or others.

    For example, while walking across a street at an intersection a person is struck by a vehicle. When investigated it was discovered that the person crossed when the crosswalk light was reading “stop and flashing red”. One could say it is “common sense” to follow directions of the light and what they have been trained to do through their parents, society or learned on the job. If we take a “common sense” approach to this scenario, one would say the person knew the hazard and chose to do something different – behavioral issue. It stops there…
    However, what-if the person was color blind and could not read? Or was from a country where the picture on the light was designed differently? Would that make a difference in your analysis of the event and the use of the term “common sense”?

  10. The dictionary defines common sense as “Sound judgment not based on specialized knowledge; native good judgment.” I can already see the argument in favour of Kevin’s viewpoint in that one cannot make sound judgement without specialised knowledge in the work place.

    Common sense is the accumulation of knowledge over time and is learned in the same way as other lessons. All have the ability to learn common sense. Some acquire this skill more readily than others. It also stands to reason that younger persons would have less common sense than older persons.

    My level of common sense tells me not to put a chemical into a container without labelling it. If common sense were common, there would be no accidental poisonings.

    We therefore see that common sense is not a standardised tool that can be relied on in accident prevention or safety management. If it were, then I would be out of a job.

  11. I think it is sad that we still argue of terms like “common sense”. There is more uncommon between specific businesses than there is common.

    This argument will only mature when we begin to talk about OHS in terms of cost-benifit analysis. Until time or technological advancements or the media or the economy stand still we will not be able to eliminate risk. We can only contain it. If we continue to wait for common sense we will be waiting forever because time doesn’t stand still and the sum of all knowledge will only lye in the hands of one individual or group when they are the last ones on earth. The concept that different people, with different experience, resources, and knowledge will ever have the same standard, “common” knowledge is absurd.

    The world is full of specialists not sheep. One guy plumbs for a living but most people know nothing about it. Two men in the same plant work two lines day in/day out and have completely different understandings and perceptions of the other person’s work.

    The term “common sense” is not only dismissive, but when uttered by OSHA is one of the most insulting and hypocritical terms they could use. The idea that OHS specialists have common knowledge even amongst themselves is laughable. This is why US OSHA just went before congress so they could berate the level of inconsistency within their own organization. Or take for example the vast differences between US and the EU. There is very little common about them and will never be.

    A man can never learn all there is to know and that’s why the more all-encompassing or vast a body of people is (I.E. OSHA) the less informed or informative their collective work becomes. Some OSHA standards are reaching 30 and 40 years old. Should we assume nothing has changed in OHS since then or are the regulations bogus. Then you have the standards organizations like NFPA who changes their codes so frequently that it costs thousands of dollars a year to have the most up to date information they have….and that information is again superseded by even smaller, less known companies that offer even more specific safety equipment and consultation for their small corner of the industry…and again that information is surpassed by some guy from Texas sitting on his computer, searching the nebulous internet who has an affinity for some specific thing and a knowledge that far exceeds that huge body of “know it alls”.

    Common sense?
    is egocentric.
    Think you know it all?
    guess again.

    There has always been a physical cost to our success, our industriousness, to or survival, and to our existence but we’ve let non-producers like OSHA walk around looking under rocks for so long on our dime know that they have come to think that the exception is the rule and that their right to exist trumps their need for existence even as the rate of injury and death reaches a statistical zero and their effectiveness becomes ineffective.

  12. “Common sense” is out of date as “unsafe acts cause most of the accidents”
    Job safety analysis can catch most of the predictable accidents.

  13. Barbara

    I think to some extent, if we keep hammering at the safety lexicon to not apply “common sense” as a dismissive term to OHS, we may be able to achieve a result similar to the erosion of “occupational hazards” meaning something that cannot be fixed and must be accepted.

    Thanks for contributing and have a good 2010


  14. Kevin,

    I agree – as an inspector I am frequently met with the opinion that “it’s all just common sense” – In my experience ‘Common Sense’ is relatively uncommon.

    Often the same people belive that ‘accidents’ are just freak events that no-one could possibly predict. Even when that event is something like a person’s fingers being removed in an unguarded power press. And they believe that safety systems and risk management is just bureaucratic red tape.

    When you point out to the same persons just how predictable and, pretty much, inevitable the incident was – based on knowledge of hazards and risks and similar incidents happening with monotonous regularity – the ‘Common Sense” proponent is baffled. Sometimes, you see the penny dropping. Usually – in my role – too late for prevention of an incident that ruins – or takes – someone’s life.

  15. Derrin

    “Common Sense” remains a term with considerable baggage and one that is often used dismissively. I think what you are describing is that safety can be “simple” which is a preferable term to “common sense” in my opinion.

    I think that you also illustrate a vital point in safety management – safety on the shopfloor is different from safety as seen in the boardroom. I am very wary of anyone who promotes one OHS approach for an entire organisation (many of these are culture sellers). Anyone in management knows that different approaches may need to be applied in different areas of a business but that there has to be an overall consistency. I think the culture advocates promise too much. I also think the behavourialists create division and resentment.

    I may not a big one for history but a lot of risk management emerged from the defence forces. I think that there may be examples in Australia’s history where those at the frontline applied simplicity in the face of danger rather than following the complexity of the directions of the generals.


  16. Kevin,

    I would like to counterpoint your comments. In my view the OHS profession “struggles for legitimacy” as it suffers from the stigma of being bureaucratic, paper shufflers disconnected from “real world” issues. Particularly with industrial safety this view is commonly held at the plant floor, where most of the hazards reside. Its this argument I encounter more often than a reluctance to implement safety as part of a workplace culture. Trying to get those at risk to adopt safety is often more of a exercise in cajoling, and assurance than impressing them with pie charts and white papers.

    While I would agree that the term Common Sense perhaps simplifies the work needed to make something safe, and I will grant you, it can lead to dumbing down of the decision making process by some, I personally feel the common sense approach allows a more open minded engagement from those at risk. If all your asking from them is common sense, rather than a 500 page report on the risks associated with their process, all of a sudden everyone, regardless of education or standing, is capable of being involved with the safety culture in a workplace.

    As professionals I believe it is important to remember that we are not more important than those that we are engaged to protect… yes safety is more than common sense, but I would recommend common sense over a panel of professionals any day.

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