Truly acknowledging failure provides a strong base for improvement

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.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

8 thoughts on “Truly acknowledging failure provides a strong base for improvement”

  1. Bette my work deals far too often with injured workers who slip down the path of contemplated-attempted-completed suicide. The hardest funeral to stand at is the funeral of someone who fell through the \”cracks\” of the workers compensation systems.

    There is a great deal that can be done, but first the conversations have to start, and until the safety industry is willing to listen and learn from those they have failed nothing will change.

  2. I agree Rosemary we need to sometimes think outside the square in the interests of better OH&S. We sadly see the families where there has been a suicide…Those who are injured can at times be at high risk as they struggle with not only the injury but also the burden of a system not designed to deal with human nature.

  3. Acceptance of failure helps in investigation of incidents to find root cause and suggest measures to avoid recurrence. Many times, safety officer will not get any information about the incident from shopfloor employees making it difficult to know about the incident itself, leave alone about the cause. I feel more progrommes on the line of IDFF will bring paradigm shift and remove the guilty feeling in the persons who were party to the incidents directly or indirectly and help in open discussion with all concerned.

  4. Many years ago I sat with a group of very intelligent people, we all spoke with a depth of knowledge and courage that had to be admired. We spoke with a level of commitment to the information we were sharing.
    At the time I was 10yrs old and the topic was ghost stories and who better to know all about ghosts than a group of 10-12 year olds.

    My reason for telling the above little insight is that at 10yrs old, I knew that all that was required to \”learn\” more about ghost stories was to join a group of other like minded people and we could talk in circles regardless of how much or how little we actually knew.

    The safety industry do not like stepping away from what they \”know\”, they sit in closed circles, they talk endlessly about the need to generate endless white papers-reports-policy-procedures-charts-graphs-leaflets-guidelines, there are conferences where industry professionals stand and pontificate about the importance of their research.
    While it is correct the number of workplace injuries and deaths has fallen in various industries, it is also correct that the workforce are now exposed to different types of injuries that also can end in suicide as a direct result of the injury.
    I have spoken to many senior safety industry people about the need to talk with injured workers to discover just what it is that injured workers know that the safety people ignore because it does not fit into the charts and graphs.
    I have offered to facilitate such meetings because if there is one thing I do know it is how to speak with injured workers, but to date not one safety person has taken up the offer. The standard response is “it is too time consuming and would be too expensive” to hold such gatherings.
    My offer is still in place and will remain in place in the faint hope that someone will actually care enough to discuss what it possible to learn rather than reason not to.

  5. Kevin, it would seem you are promoting more rounds of talk fests to accommodate those who already know or should know their responsibilities, according to legislation and the mountain of information that has been provided over the years, yet have failed miserably, collectively, to reduce workplace injuries in any meaningful volume.

    If we can\’t utilise what we already have and we can\’t obey current law I see no value in more talking to the converted as an answer.

    Societal failure should be topical at the moment with Syria, Afghanistan etc. and a myriad of other failures of monumental proportion, some resulting in a significant increase in water traffic to our country.

    New work place strategies get a mention. How about we try a strategy of obeying the law and proactively policing that law as a preventative measure. I am sure we could get some measurable results there for the statistically minded.

    Your first para says it all and the poor \”buggers\” who wear it are \”screwed\” by the compensation system so badly we compound the problem with many more cases of mental illness, poverty and further drains on the public system as families disintegrate.

    With all due respect I found the article unhelpful in the safety debate which needs to toughen up and confront non compliance by business in the workplace. Hundreds of thousands of these business are failing to comply at the basic level and your article does nothing to address this HUGE FAILURE of the regulators and government as a whole.

    Talk is cheap positive action at the coal face is rare but effective when undertaken in a proactive manner.

    1. Tony, I don\’t disagree with much of your comment but any discussion on safety will benefit from plain speaking both in better defining problems and action and broadening the understanding of failures and repairs.

      On the issue of compliance, the days of being able to define compliance and to identify a clear delineation between compliance and non-compliance have already passed. Once the application of \”reasonably practicable\” entered the legislative realm the compliance \”line\” broadened to a grey band. In my opinion this has made it more difficult than ever for small businesses, particularly, to know if they are meeting OHS legislative obligations, let alone determine if they have a safe workplace. Compliance and safety are not necessarily the same.

      1. Thanks Kevin, I can\’t agree with the \”reasonably practicable\” line as you put it. It is up to the regulators inspectorate to make that determination and if they determine that there is a non-compliance then they should provide the employer with an expiation notice and the opportunity to argue their case in court if they are feeling hard done by.

        Outcome of this approach is two fold (1) It will bring safety obligations into very clear focus (as well as pay for the inspectorate) and (2) create case law that will clearly define reasonably practicable or at least help to do so.

        Maybe the talk fests should be about getting the pollie\’s to sort out the legislative mess they have caused with the \”weasel\” wording they have inserted into the act and spend a lot more time drafting law that is precise and concise. More pressure in this area would have a practical outcome.

        It is not good enough to state \”I don\’t know how to comply\” then do nothing as a consequence. Unfortunately that is the position we have now.

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