Kevin Jones’s piece on the HSE dilemma with odd reporting of OH&S issues (silly stuff like the popular media reporting HSE banning toothpicks) got me thinkin’ about how silly attitudes about OH&S requirements come about. And maybe there is something to learn from this when thinking about the OH&S body of knowledge and accreditation system.
Clearly the HSE has every reason to be disturbed by the tone that is developing about OH&S in the UK. A contemptuous tone has a knock-on effect that undermines confidence in OH&S generally.
But how does this come about in the first place? Are they spontaneous, or is it a case of one ill-considered bit of advice spreading as a meme? And irrespective of the cause, why are these silly safety memes embraced so readily?
Is it because there are enough people more than happy to join in on denigrating OH&S because they simply have had enough of overly complex or unrealistic obligations? Or maybe the average punter has tired of high-sounding OH&S objectives that don’t turn real in a way that matters to them?
Feeling all warm and furry about technical or compliance accuracy ahead of concern for expressing that accuracy in a way that allows practical implementation for the punter is too tempting. And then there is the “safety blanket” of the knowledge dump: slam in as much as we know about a topic and leave it to the punter to wade through the mess, trying to pick out the useful stuff, that’s if they can be bothered.
I get the sinking feeling all of the above is probably true. We can get so caught up in the bleedingly obvious need and sense of looking out for an injury that I think we can lose the focus on communication. I know I have. Beavering away on a lovely bit of “elegant” risk control solution advice and standing back to re-read, and realising the ordinary punter is just not going to be able to follow the processes that led to the solution. Back to the drawing board.
The virulence of silly safety memes could well be the social consequence of all of these things that can infect OH&S-World.
This is all very well, but what to do about it? The body of knowledge and accreditation stuff on the go could well be a way to counter (or is that reverse) a social trend to denigrate OH&S as a valid thing to spend energy on.
What better way to signal to the community that OH&S-World is fair dinkum about making safety matter by having robust criteria in the body of knowledge requirements dealing with truly effective communication?
And perhaps the accreditation system being proposed should back that up with what would amount to communication audits? Rather than a “set-and-forget” accreditation system, members should be subject to random audits of their work by communication experts; not dominated by OH&S specialists, but people whose expertise is in Plain English communication. A communication efficacy audit would probably need at least one OH&S specialist (perhaps 2 just so they can balance up OH&S oriented decisions) but the majority of the audit team should be comms experts only. I’m thinkin’ a couple of highly regarded general technical writers and at least one general writing expert, a journo maybe. Ideally none of the comms experts would be SIA members; that could help bring some hard-core objectivity to the audit.
The random audits could be used as a trigger for a mentoring and guidance thing. If the audit team concludes the person being audited is off the mark in terms of using accessible language, recommendations can be made about writing references to study, critiques provided on audited material that is seen as failing to meet effective communication criteria.
I’d also throw in the idea that if this accreditation stuff ends up in a combination of practitioners and professionals then both categories of accredited groups should be subject to the communication audits.
To wrap this up I’ve added a link to a talk by Dan Dennet, a philosopher and scientist who describes the nature and characteristics of memes, specifically the dangerous memes. Very interesting:
Dan Dennet on memes on TED: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_dennett_on_dangerous_memes.html#
 Memes are likened to a virus, spreading from host to host in a socially organic way. When a meme is an idea there doesn’t have to be any factual basis. They survive by being perpetuated and shared in a culture.