Can you have too much of a good thing?


Most would say yes to some things, but assuming safety is a good thing does it apply there? Well let’s put it another way – Might your organisation be obsessed with Safety?

There are any number of studies to show an inverse correlation between the maturity of an organisation’s safety culture and incident rates.  However that correlation is far from a straight line relationship, it tends to be more of a “Step function”, so that as major elements of a modern safety management are put in place big falls in accident rates occur but there’s a plateau effect as it becomes more and more difficult to achieve incremental gains. 

We often see a scenario like this for an organisation’s historic results as they implement a system, first physical controls, guarding, PPE then a proper documented safe system of work. (check it against your historic results). 

The area at the end (“the wave”) reflects the statistical phenomenon known as “regression to the mean”. In other words there’s a sequence of up and down ticks period on period around a central level.

That can lead to a paradox.  If an organisation gets into the wave carries on with business as usual, even with the best of techniques in learning from the incidents that cause the up-ticks and any adverse audit findings, the temptation will be to make the system bigger. (This applies equally to Environmental and Quality Management systems!). Why wouldn’t we after all? From a psychology point of view is that we’ve had a lot of success in building the system. By implementing and incrementally improving a safe system of work we’ve reduced accidents. Efforts rewarded – So it works, more must be better…

So let’s put in an extra control measure or two, redo the Risk Assessment, add an item to a checklist or create a new one. Send everyone on refresher training. And there’s the paradox. 

Cognitive psychologist George A. Miller’s work lead to a maxim that most people can remember seven plus or minus two chunks of information. So what happens when we get 8,9,10 or more items on a checklist or steps in a process? In effect we’re increasing the chance of human failure as it’s so easy to create a system that no mortal human being can follow and there’s a latent fault in the system.

The bottom line is that there comes a point when there’s enough in the system, you’ll be passing most audits and have an excellent record.  After that any more risks overload and becoming what we call “System obsessed”. The resolution of the paradox is realising that you can’t get to the next level of excellence by doing more of the same. 

So at this point try looking at the system not simply from a compliance and control measure viewpoint, start asking the question – “how can I simplify the system to make the safe way easier?” After all if the safe way is easy why would anyone be thinking about risking a shortcut?

If you’d like to know more – we’d be happy to hear from you, just click the link – easy as that!

By Paul Bizzell

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