When one fails in safety management, people can get hurt or die, yet safety professionals and business executives rarely acknowledge this failure, even though companies may plead guilty in court. Instead “mistakes” are made, “deficiencies” are identified and investigations uncover “areas for improvement” but these are rarely described as “failures”.
October 13 was the International Day For Failure (IDFF), a day that is intended to provide a structure for the discussion of failure and how we respond to, and cope with, failure. The quote that most summarises the day is
“Failure is not the enemy, the fear of failure is”.
Part of the impediment for growth in safety management is that people are encouraged to deny liability for their actions. Executives receive legal advice to say as little as possible and to keep as much as possible under legal-client privilege. This is anathema to the principles of safety management that require failures to be acknowledged and for new preventive strategies to be developed. Yes, shit happens but safety management is particularly required to not let the shit happen twice. We are expected to learn from our mistakes but the learning will be most effective if the mistake is faced up to, dealt with and used to build defences against recurrence.
In Australia, on the IDFF was celebrated at the York Butter Factory in Melbourne. The venue is an entrepreneurial hub and a good setting except that it limited the discussion to, primarily, failures in the information technology sector. Failure can best be discussed through a much broader discussion and need to reflect this in the panel of speakers. There was one speaker who discussed the morality of failure and the cost of societal failure – Susan Barton from Lighthouse Foundation. Susan took failure personally because if the foundation does not succeed, if she does not work as hard as possible, she felt that she was letting down the homeless and disenfranchised. This morality of failure was a strong counterpoint to those speaking of the failures of start-ups and was the type of discussion I was expecting.
In 2013 local events around the International Day For Failure would benefit by being established with a broader panel supported by sub-panels in different industrial or social disciplines with at least one of those being how to cope with failure. IDFF’s theme reminded me much of some of the research undertaken by John Bottomley into how workplace deaths affect those left behind, the relatives and work colleagues and business owners. Bottomley’s 2000 research paper into the development of new workplace safety strategies from the grief felt after a workplace fatality fits particularly well in the IDFF theme.
The acknowledgement of failure is likely to be a strong motivator to change and it is common to hear those affected by traumatic death to say they wish to work or campaign so that no one else needs to feel the pain they feel. This motivation may benefit from failure being described as such so that the basic desire to change and improve is readily understood. The “weasel words” described above impede a common understanding of the failure and, therefore, a common base from which to improve.
Failure can be avoided through good planning and safety management but should a failure occur the speed of remediation provides the failure with a slightly different context compared to if no remediation or change is made. Failure is an important element of accountability which is itself an increasingly important part of workplace safety laws through the requirement for due diligence and a positive duty for harm prevention.
The safety profession could do a lot worse than participate in next year’s International Day For Failure.