[This article was originally published in 2008 and it shows. I sound “up myself” and apologise. But the point about open-mindedness in workplace health and safety is as valid as it was 12 years ago]
I established my occupational health and safety (OHS) consultancy on the principal that I am not an expert but a General OHS Practitioner. My skill was to identify workplace hazards that businesses didn’t recognize or didn’t understand. I could also present recommendations in plain English and reports that were stripped of unnecessary technicalities. Occasionally, usually on issues of chemicals, I would contract a colleague of mine who had the required expertise, but my aim was to be a general jack of all trades and expert of none.
This position has probably developed into a business philosophy. One that seems to be supported by the way business and OHS is evolving. Today there is less of a delineation between workplace safety, human resources, industrial relations, organisational behaviour, environment, quality management and social or psychological issues than ever before. Business advisers are trying to break down the silo structure of management but the silo structure of intellectual disciplines continues. This may be because we are all so busy that we have no time to spend talking with other disciplines. It may be that our revenues come from our own specific turfs and we don’t want to let our clients know that there may be other approaches to problem solving that we can’t provide. It may be that we are happy in our intellectual comfort zones.
If I have learnt anything from my experience is that the world is a web of social connections. Some strands of the web are thicker than others. Some connections are further from the central core than others but there is a pathway to everywhere from everywhere else. That is why I get frustrated when people disparage what they don’t understand.
It is time for me to make a confession. I will come out as a reader of FORTEAN TIMES. When you next go to a large newsagency, look for Fortean Times. It will be located with the nerdy flying saucer expose magazines. If you are lucky, it may be located next to Scientific American or Nature. The magazine reports on bizarre occurrences from raining frogs, alien big cats, bigfoot, conspiracy theories, parapsychology and many other fringe concepts. Thankfully UFO matters are minimised. I have read this magazine for over 20 years. (You can start sending the sympathy cards now.)
The key to Fortean thinking is an open mind. We should acknowledge that odd things can occur for which there is no rational explanation. These events should be investigated but we should not discount possibilities simply because they are unpalatable.
The open mind approach to the investigation of anything is a core element in accident investigation, brainstorming, “what-if” analysis, and ultimately occupational health and safety. OHS has been saddled for decades by expert investigation from isolated silos. And I am not sure that being an expert in one discipline requires one to be ignorant of other disciplines, or even disparaging of other disciplines. Experts in engineering must acknowledge that there are things that happen that are unexpected, that a machine was not designed for. Many of these events are likely to result from poor interaction between operator and machine. Rather than dismissing an incident as human error, engineers should accept that every human error is a criticism of a machine to some extent. Any machine needs to be designed to allow for some degree of human interaction. If the human misuses the machine or misunderstands the machine, then the machine design must be partly responsible.
It seems to me that the push on “safe design” is an acknowledgment that for some time now we have been designing building and machines that are unsafe. It is insufficient to say that we have not been required to design safe things by legislation as there has always been the moral requirement to not cause damage to another. The plethora of new inventions that are designed to reduce injury is proof that there is still plenty of room for improvement in design of objects and building.
It is here that OHS professionals need to begin talking with other disciplines that have had to deal with unsafe design for some time. Many of the issues that result in public liability and product liability activity can be applied equally to workplace safety. Risk managers in many companies have needed to be enlightened on OHS as public liability matters have dominated their field. But the disciplines are not that different. In councils, footpaths need to be in a state that prevents tripping of pedestrians. In a council depot, lawnmowers must be guarded to prevent projectiles. The design of footpaths and lawnmowers are to prevent damage but often our actions are reactive. The reaction blinds us to the fact that the machines and objects may have had an initial design flaw. We have not built or designed footpaths to allow for tree root growth even though we have known how trees grow for millennia. We have always known that rocks, chips and bits of wood can be flung from lawnmowers yet we have yet to design an enclosed system, which is likely to provide additional organic material for mulch or compost.
Currently there is an initiative in OHS for employers to consult with employees and vice versa. I have built my consultancy on talking across disciplines and providing advice across a multitude of industry sectors. I am not a rich man but I have a rich life. It is not hard to achieve any goal if an open mind is applied.