OHS: The Pearl Harbour Syndrome[i]
– Poverty of Expectations –
The Japanese attack on US forces at Pearl Harbour in the Hawaiian Islands on Sunday 7th December 1941 was a military disaster for the US described as a totally unforseen and unforeseeable attack. It shocked the American people and brought the US into WWII (essentially the next day). The element of total surprise (‘Why were our forces so ‘unexpecting’ and unprepared?’) was defended with the implication that, ‘we were still negotiating with the government of Japan and its Emperor in good faith’ and there was no state of war between the two nations. In a speech to congress the next day President Franklin Roosevelt called it, “… a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan”.
Controversy surrounds various aspects of the attack[ii] but it has become synonymous with surprise and astonishment. However, research over the years suggests that in fact it was preceded by a large number of misunderstood or ignored warnings and missed signs. The reason these were so completely missed, according to one scholar, is because of ‘poverty of expectations’ – routine attention to the obvious and reduced horizons for imaginative projections.
And this is the basis for the analogy with workplace managers’ observed statement of surprise and astonishment after serious OHS incidents at work. After an OHS catastrophe I have often heard many of them mutter statements like,
- I would have never thought…[Fatality, demolition collapse]
- I’d have never expected…[Hand ‘granulated’]
- I can’t imagine why anyone would do that?… [Arm amputation in conveyor belt]
- How could you possibly see this happening?…[Sections of refinery closed, plant integrity]
The manager had definitely heard of some OHS failures in his/her industry (e.g. offshore explosions, mining disasters, chemical contaminations, construction…… catastrophes); knew that OHS management systems weren’t full proof; knew of local OHS breaches; knew that short cuts are regularly taken at the work; knew that serious process failures do happen; knew that workers regularly get killed and injured at work. Why then the astonishment?
Is it really likely that these apparently astonished managers didn’t even have an inkling (weak signs) about dangerous preconditions at their workplace? Were there too many warning signs to deal with, or did impoverished expectations mislead the manager so that he/she displayed all the effects of the Pearl Harbour Syndrome?
Since the most fundamental and first step in any OHS management system, and risk assessment specifically, is hazard identification, this, I believe, is the basis of later astonishment. That astonishment is not so much about the serious incident itself, but results from failure of imagination, ‘Not in my wildest dreams’.
When poor occupational imaginative efforts result in a mind set based on impoverished expectations then necessarily the significance of a range of warning signs will be missed. The manager will develop and maintain unrealistic and more comfortable expectations. When these fail (a catastrophe happens) the mental cloak will be suddenly lifted and astonishment will follow.
Managers must replace impoverished expectations with active anticipation of the unlikely (not a new or heroic idea). By doing so they may be able to overcome complacency spawned by the solace that written documents about routine OHS programs can generate, and become more sensitive to early warning signs.
National OHS Co-Ordinator
Australian Workers’ Union
[i] I use the word ‘syndrome’ to refer to the ‘running together’ of a number of characteristics where no clear explanation is known for some event. Almost in a manner that allows the prediction of some characteristic from the presence of some others.