Does Your Corrective Action Program Need Corrective Action?

Even the safest organizations frequently identify problems and opportunities for improvement. In fact, many best-in-class organizations actively seek out even minor potential problems so they can address them before they lead to accidents or incidents.   In such companies the lack of large numbers of problems and improvement opportunities identified by the workforce is often seen as a warning sign for complacency. (Loud, 2004, p.35).   Companies that recognize the need to find and fix problems, and the importance of continuous improvement, have long developed lists of corrective actions and generally track closures. This approach, often called “stack and track,” is better than nothing but is far from optimum. Effective and efficient resolution of issues requires active management like any other important organizational program. The price for poorly managed corrective action programs is high and often results in problems such as the following:

  1. Employee disillusionment – When workers feel that their suggestions and concerns are not taken seriously or addressed in a timely manner, the organization loses something critical to sustainable (not just safety) success – worker trust. Once you’ve lost that trust, regaining the active engagement of the workforce in any company initiative is extremely difficult. Poorly designed and implemented corrective action programs set you up to alienate the workforce which is something no company can afford.
  2. Duplication of effort – many companies capture corrective actions in multiple tracking systems which make it very difficult to close issues and inevitably leads to redundant, and thus needlessly expensive, actions.
  3. Overly specific fixes – many (unexamined) corrective actions do not address root causes or applicability company-wide. This is a guarantee of recurrent problems, not just where the problems were noted, but throughout the organization.
  4. Fixes that don’t fix – corrective actions are often closed without any follow-up to determine if the action was implemented as expected or if it provided the intended benefit. This represents a kind of wishful thinking that is inappropriate, if not irresponsible, when dealing with serious institutional issues.
  5. Haphazard actions – not all corrective actions are of equal significance or urgency. Failure to prioritize actions can lead to random or otherwise unexamined attention to relatively insignificant issues at the expense of timely attention to more significant and/or pressing issues.

Fixing the Fixes

Effective resolution of issues requires a formal process to ensure that appropriate corrective actions are developed to address problem root causes. Once corrective actions are captured they should be evaluated for scope (e.g., local or company-wide) and significance and routinely reviewed to ensure their continued relevance and timely closure. The complexity and detail of a corrective action program depends somewhat on the company size, complexity, hazards and risks. A commercial nuclear power facility, for example, will likely develop a considerably more intricate system than a company limited to warehousing and shipping non-hazardous products. Any effective corrective action program should, however, contain the following elements.

  1. Issue review – all issues, identified problems, and suggestions need review to ensure that associated corrective actions address root causes, are appropriately prioritized, are addressed throughout the organization wherever applicable, lessons learned are communicated, action owners are identified and due dates are established. There are many ways to achieve these ends but I’ve experienced considerable success by using a joint management/worker team assigned this responsibility. Having such a (well trained) team not only gives you a variety of relevant perspectives on what needs to happen and who is responsible but also helps avoid charges that some actions were not taken seriously or purposely buried by management. These teams were also typically charged with routinely communicating with the issue originators to ensure they know the status of associated corrective actions. Such communication is critical if you expect ongoing employee input.
  2. A single tracking system – any organization needs to know how it’s doing in regard to finding and fixing its problems and implementing identified improvements. It is challenging to do this if you must review numerous tracking systems to get the answer. Also, it is very difficult to get final closure on any issue if the related corrective actions redundantly reside in multiple data bases.   At times you may find you have “fixed” the same issue multiple times at a considerable and unnecessary expense. Finally, all corrective actions are in competition with each other for finite time and resources. Having all the actions visible in one place allows management to make informed budget decisions – and to prioritize.
  3. Prioritization – High consequence corrective actions require more analysis and oversight than simple fixes for low-consequence actions. Over focus on low significance issues is not cost effective and consumes resources needed for more serious problems. The following table (Loud, 2004, p.34) is provided as merely one (there are many) way to prioritize corrective actions as an aid to effective and efficient disposition.  Corrective Image 1
  4. Follow-up – a follow-up process is necessary in order to have some degree of confidence that corrective actions are closed appropriately and actually fix problems. High priority actions should generally require such a post closure review. The rigor for lower priority actions needn’t be as stringent but the point is that you shouldn’t just assume/hope your problems are corrected without some review. A corrective action committee can provide this function but management must have reasonable assurance that important issues have been appropriately closed.
  5. Management oversight – top management must set expectations that problems will be identified and corrected and that opportunities for improvement are encouraged and handled appropriately. Goals, and associated metrics, for timeliness, number of open and overdue actions, and minimizing recurrence are effective status indicators but there are a multitude of ways to measure program effectiveness. The point is that management must establish the means to assure itself that the program is working as intended – not just as imagined.


Every organization should want to learn from its mistakes and improve as a result. In addition, good companies understand the value of getting their employees on board to identify improvement opportunities. This fosters engagement and ownership by the workforce that is invaluable, not only to safety, but to profitable and sustainable business operations. If the vast majority of your corrective actions were identified by the safety staff and/or outside regulators, rather than the workforce, you have problems that will require considerably more than an effective corrective action program.

Well-designed corrective action programs are essential for any organization dedicated to learning and improvement. Good intentions are not enough. Unless your company actively manages actions to correct its problems and implement improvement opportunities it will quite likely suffer needless recurrences and, at the same time, help promote a disengaged workforce. Hopefully this article will help some to avoid those pitfalls and develop corrective action programs that materially promote worker engagement and continuous improvement.


Loud, J. (2004, December). Corrective Action Programs. Professional Safety, 34-35.


ASSE PictureMr. Loud’s ( over 40 years of safety experience includes 15 years with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) where he served as the supervisor of Safety and Loss Control for a large commercial nuclear facility and later as manager of the corporate nuclear safety oversight body for all three of TVA’s nuclear sites.  At Los Alamos National Laboratory he headed the independent assessment organization responsible for safety, health, environmental protection, and security oversight of all Laboratory operations.  Mr. Loud is a regular presenter at national and international safety conferences.  He is the author of numerous papers and articles.  Mr. Loud is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and a retired Certified Hazardous Materials Manager (CHMM).  He holds a BBA from the University of Memphis, an MS in Environmental Science from the University of Oklahoma and an MPH in Occupational Health and Safety from the University of Tennessee.



Percent Safe is NOT a Measure of Risk

Virtually all companies collect worksite safety observations. Sadly, most companies collect only unsafe findings.  This results in a very incomplete picture, as discussed in “The Value of Safety Observations, Especially Safe Observations”. Those companies that do collect safe observations use a standard metric called Percent Safe (% safe). This metric is a simple calculation that factors in the number of safe observations and the number of unsafe observations, providing a percentage.

Percent Safe is NOT a Measure of Risk - Image

For example, if 100 observations were collected and one of them was unsafe, this would yield a percent safe result of 99%, as shown in the example above.

Unfortunately, many companies view this is as a measure of risk. For example, if a company received a safety report and it showed they were 97% safe, they would think that was great! The truth is that it’s likely not. Let me provide you with some things to consider:

Consideration 1:

There are two observed entities (e.g. contractor, crew, department, project) that have a % safe score of 97% and 85%. Based on this metric, which one is safer? Well, we all went to school and a ‘97’ is an ‘A+’ so we would think this is better. However, let’s peel back the layers and see what drove the result.  Entity 1, at 97%, could have several high severity findings (e.g. Fall Protection hazards identified). Entity 2, at 85%, could have several low severity findings (e.g. Minor administrative or P.P.E. issues identified). Although the 85% result appears significantly worse at face value, the 97% safe result could actually be more “at risk”.

Consideration 2:

Percent Safe is often a combination of different categorical findings. For example, it could include P.P.E., Housekeeping, Fall Protection, Administration, Electrical, etc. On average, we typically see approximately five categories included in each single inspection report. Using the examples above, it could look like this:

  • The 97% finding could be three Fall Protection findings – all unsafe – and 97 P.P.E. findings – all safe.
  • The 85% finding could be P.P.E, minor administrative issues, and minor housekeeping items with a few unsafe with low severity potential in P.P.E.

On the surface, a high percent safe result provides comfort but doesn’t provide a clear indication of risk. Conversely, a low percent safe result could give the appearance of high risk or a raise alarms but likely be relatively low risk overall.

Many companies take tremendous stock in these results. I call this phenomenon “Appearance-Based Safety” which is essentially a metric that provides a warm and fuzzy feeling indicating all is well but masks the risk and stifles important opportunities to improve. This fosters some of the most dangerous safety related situations.

Alternatively, if used appropriately, the percent safe metric can provide some key benefits. The first is long term trending at the categorical level. We must remember that an inspection is a snapshot in time. When a statistically significant number of observations are collected with the same or similar theme (e.g. Fall Protection category) percent safe can provide a good metric on the efficacy of the safety process.

The percent safe metric can also be used to measure systemic progress. When a process is deemed ‘out of control’ or in need of improvement, then percent safe is a good metric to determine if positive strides are being made. More safes should be seen and fewer unsafe observations should be discovered if action is taken to apply controls to the process. The key again is that the data must be closely grouped within a common theme and evaluated for value.

In conclusion, when looking at the big picture it becomes clear that percent safe in and of itself is a poor risk indicator, especially at the single inspection level due to the small sample size (see Consideration 2).  It’s also very easy to overreact to the number and make harsh statements or decisions which can be damaging to any progress you’ve made. Percent safe does what it is designed to do – provide a ratio of safe vs. unsafe findings collected and documented. It is the understanding of the metric, as well as its limitations, along with the positive actions taken with the findings that makes it effective.



What Makes an Effective Safety Professional? – Part 5 [Final]

 Haidt’s Moral Foundations

In a previous article I examined the evolutionary history of moral character in order to try and establish a basis for judging the comments on the LinkedIn thread:

Describe in one word… An effective safety professional is ________________ ?

In his book ‘The Righteous Mind’, Professor Jonathan Haidt of New York University’s Stern School of Business suggests that there are essentially six basic moral foundations. These foundations are all set differently in each human, due to differences in genetic makeup, development (particularly fetal development) during ontogeny, and environmental factors such as culture and experience. Each foundation has different settings and, like the settings on a music sound system, can be set high in some people and low in others. Just as some sound systems have the base turned up and some don’t. These basic moral foundations are: caring, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity.

For example, most people, with the exception of psychopaths who reason but don’t feel, instinctively respond to signs of suffering in their children. And because our brains are essentially pattern recognizers the response is not confined to our own offspring but is generated whenever we encounter something similar to that trigger. The set of current triggers for any element of the moral matrix can, therefore, be much larger than the set of original triggers. This means that even a cute toy or a picture of a baby seal or kitten can trigger an instinctive reaction to care.

He also suggests that each of these positive values is opposed by a negative related value, and that each moral setting for an individual will lie within a range somewhere between the two extremes. Where we are within that range is then influenced by personal and environmental factors.

For example the opposite of the ‘care’ value is ‘harm’. Our setting lies between a predisposition to care for our fellow humans and our propensity to do them harm. This is adapted to the environment we find ourselves in, but it is also affected by personal factors, such as what psychologist Dan McAdams refers to as the three levels of personality:

This works smoothly for most people as the challenges of daily living do not present too much difficulty. It is only when we step outside our natural range due to circumstances beyond our control (wartime, poverty, abusive households etc.) that people struggle. And sometimes two moral foundations can push us in different directions, creating dissonance. For instance, a soldier’s loyalty and authority foundation might cause him to do something that his care/harm foundation finds objectionable. This can lead to terrible feelings of guilt or trauma.

An Effective Safety Professional’s Moral Foundation

In a previous article I looked at the suggestion by Professor Jonathan Haidt, of New York University’s Stern School of Business, that there are essentially six basic moral foundations, as I was curious to see if there was a specific moral foundation for an effective safety professional. With this in mind I analyzed the 134 responses to the Linked in thread (Describe in one word… An effective safety professional is ________________ ?) and applied Haidt’s theory. The result of my analysis is given in the tables below:

Effective safety professional - final - image 1 This exercise produced some interesting results. It would appear from the almost uniform scores that there isn’t a specific moral foundation for an effective safety professional. And I have to admit that this surprised me, because I expected the care/harm foundation to come out on top. I had thought that a lot of safety professionals would have entered into the profession because of their desire to protect and care for their fellow workers. Surely there could be no greater act of caring that to spend your days trying to maintain the health and safety of others. Especially in highly competitive commercial environment where there is a considerable emphasis on production and a lack of empathy between management and their employees.

Indeed, it has been my experience that effective safety professionals often act as honest brokers or guardians of a company’s duty of care to workers so that management can understand the workers point of view. Because many company managers do not know any of the people who work at the pointy end of the hazards they help to maintain. They are just numbers on a page and their injuries are simply lines on a graph. I have worked in places where the managers stayed in their ivory tower surrounded by minions who probably told them what they wanted to hear and brought back pronouncements from on high for the workers to obey. These managers were completely disconnected from the reality on the ground and could not begin to appreciate what the term hazard actually meant.

I once found myself playing golf alongside one such manager while representing our local golf club in a team competition. It came as an awful shock to me that he was actually a really nice guy. And I’m sure it must have come as quite a surprise to him that not all of his workers were hairy Neanderthals. In fact we got on very well together even though there had been a lot of conflict back at the factory. I missed one game though, because I had burned my hand on a steam pipe that ran right behind my work station. The pipe had been mentioned in several dispatches and was on a long list of items that needed attention. However the week after the factory manager saw the blisters on my hand the pipe was covered. It ceased to be an intangible representation of a hazard on a list, and it became a real source of pain for someone he knew. I think that effective safety professionals help managers understand this concept.

Effective safety professional - final - image 2

I was also surprised that the authority foundation came out well ahead of all the others (ties in with Belbin’s ‘shaper’ from a previous article). It would appear that the effective safety professional may well be predisposed to being one of the safety police that I have never had much time for. All the safety police I worked with started out as a moral crusaders, but became disillusioned at some point, abandoned the crusade, and reverted (seemingly out of spite) to creating and implementing rules and regulations. Violations of these rules would, of course, result in severe sanctions. Safety was paramount after all, so who could argue with the necessity for either the rules or the sanctions. They were for your own good.

The safety police would then spend the bulk of their time trying to catch people violating those very rules, while dangling some kind of reward (trinket, pizza party etc.) at the end of the month for those who complied (didn’t get caught) with their regime. Most of the safety police that I encountered were extremely assiduous career orientated people who held a zealous belief in the efficacy of the simple ABC model of human behavior.

The ABC model (antecedent-behavior-consequence) suggests that behaviors are triggered by antecedent stimuli and motivated essentially by consequences. For example, a driver sees light about to turn red, considers the alternatives, but stops because the consequences of running the light are prohibitive. This is a very simplistic view of human behavior that considers the human brain, essentially, as a conscious data processor. People are a lot more complicated than that though, and most of our decision making is performed at a subconscious level by an emotional mind, which can be motivated by abstract ideas that may, or may not take account of consequences.

In any case, the consequences they say are most effective when they are soon, certain and positive; which is true, a lot of the time, but not all the time. And the ‘positive’ spin was never really the first port of call for the safety police that I worked with; if it entered their heads at all it was as an afterthought. Workers knew deep down that it was really the negative consequences (which do not need to be either soon or certain) that were going to be used to manipulate their behavior. It was essentially the old command and control model remarketed and rebranded. In a given situation do this and/or this might happen.

Despite my high hopes however, the tables do not help me discern what moral values are necessary in an Effective Safety Professional. Indeed my meandering journey through organization, collaboration and morality, has not left me any wiser as to what qualities must be present in an effective safety professional. It remains an elusive confluence of characteristics.


Over a series of articles, I looked at how the responses to the questionnaire could be interpreted under the categories of technical proficiency, teamwork, and character. However, it was apparent from very early on that most of the responses could only be interpreted as character traits (commitment, passion etc.). And of these, most were moral judgments (trustworthy, conscientious, etc.). One way of looking at the responses that requires no interpretation at all, is to view them simply as virtue ethics.

According to Jonathan Haidt in his book ‘The Righteous Mind’, in all of the world’s great civilizations, moral instruction took the form of stories about cultural heroes who exemplified certain virtues. When more formal philosophy developed later on, it often included an analyses of the virtues extolled in the stories and suggested that these virtues should be cultivated by young people as a set of habits, character traits, and practical skills which might be mastered over many years. Virtues were also role-specific; each person plays a part in several systems from family up through nation and a virtuous person must learn how to play the parts well. Virtues, like most things, can be defined by what they are (abstract) or by what they do (functional), but most approaches favor the latter method and treat them as character traits that a person needs in order to live a good, praiseworthy life.

Haidt contends that the mind is like a rider (conscious controlled processes; Kanneman’s system 2) on an elephant (unconscious automatic processes; Kahneman’s system 1) and only virtue ethics will address the whole mind. Virtue theories, though, always emphasize the importance of practice, training, reflection and habit. Aristotle and Confucius both concluded independently that learning to be virtuous is like learning to play a musical instrument, hence the term virtuoso, because virtuosity requires years of practice and studious attention to role models until the ear is educated and the hands move easily, almost on their own.

Virtues are excellences of character that equip people to play their roles in society. There are many roles and many kinds of interaction, so there are many virtues. A good soldier should not cultivate the virtues of a priest; a good daughter should not cultivate the virtues of a father. The virtues on display in a rice-farming culture (which requires extraordinary cooperation) differ from those held out to children in a sheep-herding culture (which requires more masculine toughness to guard one’s flocks), which in turn differ from those of an urban trading culture (emphasizing contracts and voluntary exchange). So virtue theories are pluralistic—they can’t be reduced to a single master virtue.

Therefore, without any more ado, procrastination, filibustering, stalling or further gilding the Lilly, here are the virtues required of an Effective Safety Professional according to the contributors on LinkedIn:

Effective safety professional - final - image 3

You’re welcome!

Well nobody said that being a good Safety Professional would be easy. The road to virtue is arduous and many things outside our control can go wrong, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made,” Immanuel Kant. Just as the right education, habits, influences, examples, etc. can promote the development of virtue, the wrong influencing factors can promote vice. Some people will be lucky and receive the help and encouragement they need to attain moral maturity, but others will not.

Indeed, the very use of the term PROFESSIONAL in the first place should be seen as denoting something that is intrinsically difficult. One doesn’t tend to consult a professional when it comes to something easy. Like peeling potatoes, say. Professional advice is only sought when faced with a difficult situation requiring expertise. The purpose of a professional qualification, in my view, has always been to turn raw recruits into capable, well rounded people with expertise that is not easily acquired or applied.

A professional, in my view, is someone who aspires to a high level of competence or skill for which they are paid; as opposed to an amateur who is seen as a dabbler displaying less competence or skill and is unpaid. A professional operates in a specialized field of knowledge which demands higher learning or a lengthy and arduous training. Professionals, within a field establish the standards, values and identity of the profession, eliminating along the way those who do not possess the aptitude, intelligence or dedication to reach those standards.

With this in mind, it is not enough to produce individuals who are simply capable of passing demanding examinations. The ultimate aim must be to produce people who can exert discretionary judgment. It is the latitude to make decisions based on their own assessment of a situation, utilizing all the elements of good moral judgment, which distinguish a true professional from a charlatan. This requires an ability to evaluate, think systematically and generate alternatives to complex problems, often involving ethical concerns that affect the general public; an arduous responsibility.

Indeed, those who get big decisions wrong or who shy away from making decisions do not usually last long in most professions (politics excluded obviously). However, responsibility is notable by its absence from the list above. Accountability comes close, but a person can be held accountable for something for which they had no real responsibility. It could be argued, I suppose, that line management are the ones who have (and should have) responsibility for safety, as they are the ones who must ultimately balance production and safety. However, this does not entirely get the safety professional off the hook. They still have a responsibility to advise and monitor line management.

Accepting responsibility, though, is not something that comes naturally, and anyone who has young children will be familiar with Bart Simpsons attitude to responsibility ‘It wasn’t me, nobody saw me do it, you can’t prove anything’. Responsibility then must be learned, and it is something that can only be learned through experience, ‘If you want children to keep their feet on the ground, put some responsibility on their shoulders’; Abigail Van Buren.

In my opinion, seeking responsibility is the most important virtue an Effective Safety Professional must acquire. And, as with all virtues, this will only come about through practice, reflection, development, implementation and further reflection.


Liam MoranLiam has worked on construction sites in the US, UK and Ireland, and spent over 17 years working as a skilled butcher for a meat processor while continuing to run his family’s farm. Following the closure of the processing plant, Liam returned to college where he obtained a First Class Honors Degree in Construction Management, and went on to work as a Site Engineer for a construction company. Liam became interested in Health and Safety when he wrote a thesis, The Effect of Group Dynamics on Safety Culture, for his Honors Degree qualification and subsequently went on to gain a post graduate qualification on the topic from Trinity College Dublin.


What Makes an Effective Safety Professional? – Part 4


When I decided to write a series of articles on the traits that I believed were necessary for someone to be considered an effective safety professional, I first of all examined a comment thread running on this topic on LinkedIn. A one line question that had elicited 134 responses at the time of writing:

Describe in one word… An effective safety professional is ________________ ?

Then I began to consider the comments under the three categories that I have always found to be present in truly effective individuals:

1. Technical Proficiency

2. Teamwork

3. Character

Over a series of articles I looked at how the responses to the questionnaire could be interpreted under each of those categories. However, it was apparent from very early on that most of the responses were character orientated (Persistent, Inquisitive etc.). And of these, most were moral judgments (Trustworthy, Conscientious, etc.). But I left this category until last, because character and morality are very difficult concepts to pin down. Character in particular has been considered by some of the greatest minds of all time, and they have all struggled to offer a satisfactory explanation of what it is, where it comes from and why it is valued.

Ernest Hemmingway defined character simply as “grace under pressure”, but I believe that this catchy little phrase does not capture its essence. And character is not just about courage; although courage is a vital component. Character, I believe, is a propensity to do what is right when the alternative is to do what is easy. But what is right is not always apparent. And, at times, there may be two conflicting rights, neither of which is easy. It seems to me therefore, that a prerequisite of character is the ability to make good moral judgments about what is right. And there are only three ways that I know of to make those kinds of judgments.

Firstly, something can be known, or felt, intuitively. But this leads to phenomenon known as naïve realism, where somebody believes that they see the world as it really is and everyone else should conform to their point of view (moral crusader). Also, if I see the world as it really is and if I believe the facts are there for all to see, it follows that those who disagree with me must be biased or willfully ignoring those facts.

Secondly, what is right can be learned from others, by simply following an established convention. But this allows people to think that there is a transcendent moral order, or orthodoxy, to which we ought to conform the ways of society (safety cheerleader). These conventions can be political (communism), legal (declaration of rights), religious (sharia law), or all three (Health and Safety perhaps).

Thirdly, one can use logic and rationality as was proposed by those who developed the ideas that led to the Age of Enlightenment, following in the tradition of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates. But this results in a cold, calculating and ultimately futile attempt to weigh intangibles in order to establish which has the greater utility (cubicle dwelling, metric fixated, safety manager). It also undermines all the benefits of established authority, belief and wisdom.

It has been my experience that people with character do not use just one of these methods in order to establish what is right; they use all of them simultaneously. Their moral core supplies them with intuition, to which their reasoning apparatus applies knowledge/experience and logic. These mechanisms do not operate independently though, they have a dynamic reciprocal interaction. Through reflection and experience their intuitions become better: “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind“, Immanuel Kant.

Also, their central moral core operates alongside an ability to see things from other people’s perspective, which gives them an appreciation that others may espouse very sincere views based on deeply felt and honestly held values that may well differ considerably from one’s own viewpoint.

This understanding allows them to establish a balance in their own minds between what is best for society and what is best for the individuals who make it up, which leads to a cognizance of the fact that no single individual has all the answers, and that there is seldom an orthodoxy which can be applied to everyone. It also means that they don’t tend to see the world in terms of simplistic binary opposites (no grey areas) either. In fact, they feel compelled to resist that mind-set. And in this context, character is not always elegant; it involves conflict.

Good moral judgment, then, is the foundation on which everything else is built in this vision of character. But this is not an easy road to travel, and many people will find themselves ill-equipped for the journey. Those who follow the other routes will find balm in conventional wisdom, logic/measurement or intuition and everything in their world will make perfect sense to them. They will probably gravitate towards an environment full of like-minded individuals. “People can maintain an unshakeable faith in any proposition, however absurd, when they are surrounded by a community of like-minded believers.“; Daniel Kahneman, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’.

These people will experience very little conflict, but they will not be as effective as those who are willing to accept some adversity. Anyone who wishes to rise above the ordinary must follow a more difficult path. They must either possess or acquire a moral core and utilize all three elements of good judgment. And then they must be willing and able to apply that judgment in an environment which may not be conducive or receptive to their efforts.

Fortunately, however, somebody with the aptitudes espoused above will probably find the challenge presented somewhat rewarding. That is the beauty of a moral core of this nature. But where does this moral core come from? In the section, I will take a quick look at the evolutionary history of morality to see if there is a basis upon which to judge the LinkedIn comment thread and establish if there is a typical moral foundation on which an effective safety professional is built.

Evolution of Moral Character

I came to the conclusion that moral character was vital for any individual who wanted to be an effective safety professional. But where does moral character originate? How did it come about?

The single greatest event in human evolution, according to Michael Tomasello in ‘The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition’, came when the first primates began to cooperate in a way that has not occurred before or since on our planet. We began cooperating with what Tomasello calls ‘shared intentionality’. Essentially, this meant that one primate began to see other primates as an intentional agent like the self (this led to the evolution of language, tools and culture etc.). But, he suggests, in order for humans to take full advantage of this development, an entire psychology of cooperation would have had to spring up to encourage it. And for it to flourish and evolve further as it did these traits must have helped it considerably.

So we developed a conscience to keep us from straying into selfish territory; feeling guilt puts a brake on our appetites; empathy helps us appreciate the needs of others so we can lend assistance and reduce any tendency to harm others; shame motivates us to put things right and dispositions to be kind and generous builds reputations and attracts allies.

These attributes, or moral matrices (Haidt, ‘The Righteous Mind’), undoubtedly helped create highly cohesive and extremely cooperative groups. And Darwin believed that cohesive groups will always out-compete other more individualistic collections of people for scarce resources. So, moral matrices bind people together better than anything else. But moral matrices also blind people to the existence of other matrices. Human beings are designed to believe that there is only one true and correct way of looking at any given situation (see Asch’s conformity experiments). If a group have an established way of doing something it is more beneficial to the group, from an evolutionary perspective, that everybody is committed to this than to approach a problem with a more efficient solution but in a disorganized fashion.

This makes it very difficult for people to consider that there may more than one form of moral truth, or more than one valid framework for judging success or failure in society. And it may explain the scarcity of character in highly cohesive societies. We have innate evolved intuitions but we must adapt them to the culture we find ourselves in, a culture which is also evolving. “We are born to be righteous, but we have to learn what, exactly, people like us should be righteous about,” Jonathan Haidt, ‘The Righteous Mind’.

Different cultures also favor different elements within the moral domain. Richard Shweder developed a three part model of morality based on three ethics; autonomy, community and divinity. People who favour autonomy place the rights of individuals above all else; people who favor community give priority to the needs of the many rather than the needs of the few; and people who prioritize divinity see humans as a sacred vessel for the soul which must not be degraded or dishonored (which extends to a concept of purity, pollution and environmentalism). According to Haidt, the WEIRDer (western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) you are, the more you see a world full of autonomous objects, rather than relationships. Haidt does not say it, and it would change the word to WEIRDUr, but I think you could add Urban to that mix. Most other societies, though, build their cultures around the other two ethics.

However, because we simultaneously evolved as individuals within the collective we are compelled to further our own self-interest while presenting the best possible appearance of propriety to the group. Good moral judgment must traverse the chasm between what is best for the individual and what is best for society. Therefore, within the overall cultural context, individuals also have their own moral compasses. Although, I believe that compass is the wrong metaphor in this instance because, as Haidt discovered after extensive research, it is more like a palate with taste receptors or a music sound system than a compass. Some of the settings are high in some people and low in others, just as some sound systems have the base turned up and some don’t. The difference, though, is that morality is not easily changed, which is probably why Haidt prefers the taste bud metaphor. He suggests that just as we have taste receptors for salt, sweet, bitter, and so on, so we have six basic moral receptors: caring, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. More information on this can be obtained at: and at

While all of us are born with a certain proclivity towards settings on these six moral foundations, each of them stands to be amplified or quieted as well as somewhat modified by a host of internal and external factors. The internal factors include our personality and its development, while the external factors include the environment in which we are raised (culture, etc.), and the particular experiences that we have as we go through life. All these factors act together, I believe, in a dynamic reciprocal relationship along the lines suggested by Albert Bandura’s social cognitive theory:

Haidt’s theory and research however, though extensive and well received, is novel and challenging. The new atheists (Richard Dawkins etc.) for example, rancor at the fact that it provides an evolutionary imperative for religious experience and debunks the notion that religion is a parasitic meme. While religious people on the other hand, rancor at the notion that their belief in the divine is driven by a genetic predisposition. Nevertheless, I decided to examine the traits from the LinkedIn thread (Describe in one word… An effective safety professional is ________________ ?) under Haidt’s six moral foundations, to see if there is a typical moral imperative for an effective safety professional. The outcome of this exercise will be examined in the next, and final, article.


Liam MoranLiam has worked on construction sites in the US, UK and Ireland, and spent over 17 years working as a skilled butcher for a meat processor while continuing to run his family’s farm. Following the closure of the processing plant, Liam returned to college where he obtained a First Class Honours Degree in Construction Management, and went on to work as a Site Engineer for a construction company. Liam became interested in Health and Safety when he wrote a thesis, The Effect of Group Dynamics on Safety Culture, for his Honours Degree qualification and subsequently went on to gain a post graduate qualification on the topic from Trinity College Dublin.



What Makes an Effective Safety Professional? – Part 3

This article is the third in a series that details the qualities necessary to be an effective safety professional that began with, “What Makes an Effective Safety Professional – Part 1” and continued with “What Makes an Effective Safety Professional – Part 2“. As detailed in the introductory article, the author focuses on three essential points:

1. Technical Proficiency

2. Teamwork

3. Character

This article will focus on the second of the three qualities.


Teamwork lies at the heart of any enterprise. There is very little that can be achieved by an individual acting alone, irrespective of their talent or ability. This is true of all types of human activity, and the safety profession is no different. It is as difficult to become an effective safety professional without the cooperation of others, as it is to be an effective footballer at a malfunctioning club. Teamwork has proven to be one of the most effective means ever devised of achieving goals and objectives. We humans are extremely well equipped psychologically to work within groups in order to take advantage of this. Our evolutionary forebears, who suppressed their own individual self-interests in favour of their group, reaped the reward of others doing the same for them, giving them a considerable competitive advantage when it came to survival in difficult times. But cooperation and teamwork is not unique to humans. So what makes us so good at it?

It was not until we unlocked the psychological means to both yoke individuals efforts and skills (cooperation), and preserve advances made within a group (culture), that our species began to make unparalleled leaps forward. The evolution of these traits gave us a formidable tool, a ratchet, which then led on to our most impressive cognitive achievements. For example, the first word or symbol was not simply a connection between an object and its description; it was an agreement between people as to what it meant. Subsequently, linguistic and mathematical symbols led to social institutions and then on to complex technologies.

Humans, though, also cooperate differently than all other social creatures. Something that is readily apparent to those of us who have the opportunity to observe groups of domesticated animals on a regular basis is that all the animals in a group do pretty much the same thing. Apparently this is also the case among our closest primate relatives (Tomasello). But humans are very different. Our ancestors inhabited a social environment where individual humans specialised in one area or activity which might then be exchanged for goods or services that others specialised in.

This raises an interesting question; do humans, therefore, differ from each other in innate abilities and dispositions that make us suited to different ways of prospering in society, or do we acquire these qualities following a lengthy interaction within an evolved cultural system or meme (Nature or Nurture)? There is a tendency to think that these traits are simply learned, but studies of identical twins separated at birth have clearly demonstrated the power of genetics to influence all aspects of our lives. Right down to what we watch on television, what type of books we like to read and whether or not we like to attend religious services.

However, Michael Tomasello (The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition) believes that “The introduction of Darwinian ways of thinking… should have rendered this debate (Nature or Nurture) obsolete“. Furthermore, he hypothesises that the reason it has not been rendered obsolete is that the natural way to answer the question “what causes trait X” is to choose one of the alternatives above. This is because our ability to reason is largely dependent on the language we use to reason with. For example, babies cannot reason much because they do not have language. Reasoning requires language because complicated ideas require words. It follows logically, therefore, that the words we use will then impact on our reasoning (linguistic determinism). So, if the word ‘cause’ did not exist in the English language we would have to ask “how did trait X come about”, which would lead us to think differently about the process (indeed, it might also lead us to think differently about how accidents come about as well).

Tomasello favours the view that traits are not ‘caused’ they come about following complex interactions between genes and an environment. However, the question remains; could this mean that we have evolved temperaments and abilities which, when we interact with a social environment, make us more effective at, or predispose us to, different roles within society? Well, farmers have operated under this assumption for centuries. We breed animals specifically in order to produce particular behaviours, intellectual abilities and temperaments. For example, as well as breeding sheep to produce large offspring, multiple offspring, and hardiness, we also select sheep that have a proclivity to be good mothers, don’t stray, and are docile. And these traits are hereditary. Farmers have also found that Sheep Dogs are naturally good at complex tasks like herding (even inexperienced humans struggle at this): Golden Retrievers are prone to bring things back: And Dobermans seem to want to guard stuff.

Similarly human culture may have naturally selected people who have a predisposition to guard it, pray for it, make things for it or protect those who live in it. Mark Pagel in his wonderful book ‘Wired For Culture’ states that one of the most remarkable discoveries he came across while studying complex systems, was that order, or more precisely a lack of entropy, can seem to appear out of randomness when individuals follow a small number of local rules. He also theorises that if people use the simple strategy of win stay lose shift, then, over time, they will become highly sorted and everyone will end up doing something they are good at.

In his 1981 book ‘Management Teams: Why They Succeed or Fail’, Maredith Belbin identified nine specialist group roles which, if present in the right combination, could create the perfect team. It was based on almost a decade of research that was conducted in association with three other scholars: Bill Hartston, mathematician and international chess master; Jeanne Fisher, an anthropologist who had studied Kenyan tribes; and Roger Mottram, an occupational psychologist. They studied business games at Henley Business School in the UK and then observed, categorised and recorded the contribution of the team members. They originally supposed that high-intellect teams would succeed where lower intellect teams would not. However, the outcome of this research was that certain teams, predicted to be excellent based on intellect, failed to fulfil their potential. Whereas, teams characterised by the compatibility of their roles were more likely to be winners. More information about these team roles can be found at

However, while Belbin draws on examples from real organisations, it is worth bearing in mind that the development of the model is based on specially selected subjects in the artificial environment of the business school exercise. Nevertheless, I decided to examine the traits from the LinkedIn thread (Describe in one word… An effective safety professional is ________________ ?) under Belbin’s nine team role characteristics, to see if there is a typical role that safety professionals might naturally fulfil within an organisation.

Belbin’s Team Roles

Effective safety professional - Teamwork Image 1

Effective safety professional - Teamwork Image 2

The results of this exercise proved very interesting. It would seem, based on my interpretation of the LinkedIn posts, that safety professionals do not need to fulfill any one particular role. This, I must admit, surprised me. I expected the majority of effective safety professionals to be to be Monitor/Evaluators. Perhaps that is due to a bias in my experience or due to a subconscious recognition of myself in the role. However, oddly enough, I seem to see myself in all the positive characteristics and in none of the allowable weaknesses…. The vagaries of the human mind!!

In any case, it would also appear from my, albeit subjective, analysis of the responses that safety professionals are least likely to be creative, imaginative or given to the generation of ideas that solve problems (Plants). Perhaps that role might be the preserve of production line management, or perhaps it could be due to the fact that the Plant’s weaknesses, ignoring incedentals and not communicating well, are simply not conducive to being an effective safety professional.

It came as no great surprise to me, though, that the Resource Investigator did not feature very high on the list. In fact I was only surprised that it was not at the bottom of the pile. Because the Resource Investigator, to me at least, sounds very like the worst kind of safety professional that I ever came across; what an extremely effective safety professional of my acquaintance, Phil La Duke, calls the safety cheerleader. Almost all of the safety cheerleaders that I came across were incredibly positive, well-meaning individuals who firmly believed that the farmer and the cowman should be friends. They saw their role as caring for everybody and trying to find a fair and happy compromise whenever there was tension between workers and management. And there was always tension between workers and management. Management were continuously seeking to increase production and reduce costs while workers were resolutely seeking to lighten their workload, improve their conditions and get extra pay. Often there wasn’t a happy compromise to be found. One side made the rules and the other side had to follow them. Either management said it has to be done this way or workers said we’re not doing that.

Their desire to avoid conflict meant that safety cheerleaders were only ever effective at getting worn machinery replaced or introducing a paperwork trail which could be used in the event of an insurance claim. Their understanding of risk, safety and production was, for the most part, minuscule. Management never had to justify a risk to them because they had convinced themselves that management were doing everything they possibly could to improve safety in the workplace. Safety was, therefore, simply a case of workers being careful. There was no question in their minds of calculations being made involving risk, reward and loss where a workers safety was concerned.

It has been my experience that effective safety professionals, on the other hand, are constantly involved in conflict. They hold people to account as well as recognising good work. They make management understand that if they choose to accept a particular risk there is a liklihood that one of their employees will get badly hurt. But they do not shrink from the implications of that reality either. They are prepared to go down into the trenches and wade through the hypocrisy. The company wants you to take THIS risk because the cost of removing it far outweighs the benefits. However, the company does not want you to take THAT risk because the consequences to yourself and the company of the risk materialising are unacceptable. And they make sure workers understand that the dichotomy is not immoral or illogical. Sure, management cares about their employees, most managers are human beings after all, but they have to make as much money as they possibly can as well.

Ironically though, people who don’t compromise, and are driven by idealism, can be just as innefective as the safety cheerleader. Which is why it surprised me to find the Shaper at the top of the list. The caracteristics of the Shaper, in my view, seem very similar to a lot of the very ineffective safety professionals that I encountered, who saw themselves as moral crusaders, self-righteously struggling with inadequate resources to keep ignorant, obstinate and reckless workers from harming themselves, while uncaring, arrogant and deceitful managers hindered and obstructed them every step along the way. There was no point in engaging in meaningful dialogue with these people. The only logical course of action to take was to simply humour them. These crusaders seemed to think that they were the only ones who could see the world as it really was. And, though they seemed to be aware that their own background shaped their views and ideas (they frequently used anecdotes to justify themselves), they somehow felt that other peoples background only helped to explain their biases or covert motivations.

Moral crusaders also tended to be very pompous and persnickety, treated risk takers with disdain and seemed to think that the end justified the means. I suppose when you believe right is on your side all that matters is the destination not the route by which you arrive. They also tended to believe that all acidents could be prevented; it was simply a function of good management and worker compliance. I suppose it is difficult to launch a moral crusade that could be scuppered by randomness (or one of Taleb’s black swans).

In fact, they displayed little or no understanding of risk, something that must be confronted by every company operating in a competitive commercial environment. Risk, of course, is a function of mathematical probability, which means that sooner or later the risk will realise its potential to cause harm. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be a risk. Indeed, it has been my experience that in the real world it is sometimes thought necessary to run very high risks over a short duration due to unforeseen or unforeseeable circumstances. Effective safety professionals help manage these unwanted events. Moral crusaders on the other hand, either hide of their own volition, are kept in the dark by production line supervisors or are simply ignored.

Having said all that, I suppose I should also say that the moral crusaders I encountered were not bad people. Most cared deeply about their job and the people who faced danger in the course of their work. They tended to be idealists. And most of us were idealists at some point in our lives.

Of course, we then grew up. We realised that there is more than one moral framework; that we live and work in grey areas; that certainty is unlikely; and that all risk cannot, indeed should not, be removed from human endeavour. Idealists can be wonderful people but I have always found it very difficult to work with them. They don’t want to hear opposing views and they don’t compromise. This makes it impossible to find common ground… which is why I prefer pragmatists myself.

Perhaps there are other elements of the effective safety professionals character, though, which can explain why the same traits that make one safety professional effective, can make another impossible to work with. I will look more closely at individual character in a forthcoming article.


Liam MoranLiam has worked on construction sites in the US, UK and Ireland, and spent over 17 years working as a skilled butcher for a meat processor while continuing to run his family’s farm. Following the closure of the processing plant, Liam returned to college where he obtained a First Class Honours Degree in Construction Management, and went on to work as a Site Engineer for a construction company. Liam became interested in Health and Safety when he wrote a thesis, The Effect of Group Dynamics on Safety Culture, for his Honours Degree qualification and subsequently went on to gain a post graduate qualification on the topic from Trinity College Dublin.



What Makes an Effective Safety Professional – Part 2

This article is the second in a series that details the qualities necessary to be an effective safety professional that began with, “What Makes an Effective Safety Professional – Part 1“. As detailed in the introductory article, the author focuses on three essential points:

1. Technical Proficiency

2. Teamwork

3. Character

This article will focus on the first of the three qualities.

Technical Proficiency

Many people want to be a leader. But the first step on the road to leadership is technical proficiency. In order to lead people, one must first of all have their respect. Nobody will follow someone they do not respect, irrespective of how much they may like (or fear) them. Technical proficiency is the foundation of any manager’s respect. They must be able to manage before anyone will look to them for leadership. Indeed, there is a large grey area between where management stops and leadership begins. The terms leader and manager are often synonymous because they are both concerned with achieving goals and objectives. Management, in my view, is predominantly functional, while leadership is almost exclusively psychological. They are two sides of the same coin, though. Both must be present for either to be effective, and both must work together coherently.

Henri Fayol was one of the first management theorists to define the functions of management. He postulated that managers must forecast what needs to be done, organise resources and persuade others to do what is required by coordinating, commanding and controlling them. Fayol believed that these functions were universal, that all managers perform these tasks in the course of their daily work. While his ideas of command and control may seem old fashioned, I believe they still remain at the heart of all management today, just repackaged and rebranded to appeal to a more politically correct ethos. For example the ABC model (Antecedent, Behaviour and Consequence) of human behaviour is routinely used for command and control. Instead of getting an order to be obeyed, you get an antecedent which will trigger a behaviour bearing in mind a consequence. Those in command simply use different means of control. Fayol’s functions remain, in my opinion, as valid as the day he wrote them although I would now give communication its own category because in the intervening period it has become an essential function in its own right. It’s the grey area between management and leadership.

Effective safety professional - Image 1 - Part 2

When I examined the 134 responses on the LinkedIn thread (Describe in one word… An effective safety professional is ______________?), I came to the conclusion that of the 82 comments that could be sorted neatly into technical proficiency or character traits: 37 (46%) could be construed as technical traits and 45 (54%) were purely character traits. Of course some of the posts could not be categorised so neatly. For example, my own paltry contribution (valuable) was neither a function of management nor a characteristic of leadership. It is simply the effect of supply and demand. However, the posts that could be categorised into the functions of management were allocated by me as follows:

Effective safety professional - Image 2 - Part 2

Planning and Command and Control appear to dominate.

However, it must be acknowledged that the majority of the traits posted were character traits. In fact, a lot of the traits that made it into the function of management were borderline character traits. I just chose to interpret them for the sake of this exercise as functional. For example, ‘Approachable’ was categorised by me as being a communication function. However, there is more to being approachable than simply engaging in an exchange of dialogue. One can approach a cash machine and exchange information, but I doubt that is what the person who posted the word ‘approachable’ had in mind when they made their contribution on LinkedIn. The more I think about the traits posted, the more it seems to me that the traits required to be an effective safety professional are almost entirely character traits. These will be examined in forthcoming articles.


Liam MoranLiam has worked on construction sites in the US, UK and Ireland, and spent over 17 years working as a skilled butcher for a meat processor while continuing to run his family’s farm. Following the closure of the processing plant, Liam returned to college where he obtained a First Class Honours Degree in Construction Management, and went on to work as a Site Engineer for a construction company. Liam became interested in Health and Safety when he wrote a thesis, The Effect of Group Dynamics on Safety Culture, for his Honours Degree qualification and subsequently went on to gain a post graduate qualification on the topic from Trinity College Dublin.


What Makes an Effective Safety Professional?

When I was considering what to write for this article, my first port of call was to review previous contributions in order to see what had already been covered. I was immediately struck by the breadth, depth, scope and expertise of my predecessors. Many of the contributors were from the top echelons of Health and Safety and it occurred to me that I was woefully out of my depth. Upon reflection, I felt my perspective is very different from my predecessors – it’s the view from the bottom up so to speak – was worth sharing.

Most of my working life has been spent at the coal face, where safety initiatives were done TO me, WITH me, and often in SPITE of me. I have worked in what are, statistically, some of the most dangerous professions; agriculture, construction and meat processing. My understanding of what safety is, how it is applied, and why, did not originate by applying weighty theories and smart ideas while wearing a sharp suit. It was acquired (initially at least) through shifting weighty objects and using sharp tools while wearing a boiler suit. Also, I have been managed by people who used a staggering array of management styles and I have seen several management initiatives succeed and fail, which I believe has given me some insight as to the reasons why in both instances.

Based on that insight I came to the conclusion that the management style was largely irrelevant, what mattered was the manager. Some managers were very effective and some weren’t. But it wasn’t until I returned to college to study management and applied theory and knowledge to my experience, that I began to consider what made the difference. Essentially, although there are a large amount of variables involved, I believe it can be boiled down to three things:

1. Technical Proficiency

2. Teamwork

3. Character

While I have encountered many managers with an abundance of any one of those attributes, all three must be present for an individual to be really effective. To date, I have only ever come across one such person. He was an incredibly charismatic individual who was extremely proficient technically, knew his job inside out, but it was his capacity to get other people to do what he thought was necessary that really set him apart. Whether it was management or workers, people wanted to do things for him; and it seemed effortless. He was both a people manager and a process manager. Perhaps this explains the rarity. I read somewhere that most managers are promoted because of their technical prowess and that most of those who are subsequently let go are let go because they lacked interpersonal skills.

So, based on my experience, I decided to write an article on what I believed would constitute a truly effective safety professional. Unfortunately, my first attempt was a monumental disaster. I ended up with the first chapter of a book on the subject of why safety professionals fail. But there was precious little insight as to what makes them succeed. I abandoned the exercise. However, when I came across a comment thread on this topic running on LinkedIn, I began to reconsider.

It is a one line question that had elicited 134 responses at the time of writing:

Describe in one word… An effective safety professional is ________________ ?

I decided to have a closer look at the responses and break them down into the three categories which I believe are required for an effective safety professional. I chose to ignore the LIKE facility (comments on LinkedIn can be LIKED by others), though, as I felt this would probably be people who had already commented wishing to approve of similar comments.

I will go through my ‘findings’ in a short series of forthcoming articles.


Liam MoranLiam has worked on construction sites in the US, UK and Ireland, and spent over 17 years working as a skilled butcher for a meat processor while continuing to run his family’s farm. Following the closure of the processing plant, Liam returned to college where he obtained a First Class Honours Degree in Construction Management, and went on to work as a Site Engineer for a construction company. Liam became interested in Health and Safety when he wrote a thesis, The Effect of Group Dynamics on Safety Culture, for his Honours Degree qualification and subsequently went on to gain a post graduate qualification on the topic from Trinity College Dublin.


Myth busting: All Accidents Are Preventable?

Recently my friend Alan Quilley had a fine article at this very spot dealing with some Safety Myths.  I thought that it would be a good idea to expand a bit on this and explore some myths further, starting with a very persistent one that has found its way in many a Safety Policy and also several text books:

All Accidents Are Preventable.

The question of course is: Are they indeed?  Why then don’t we see this happening in our everyday observations?  Just check the news or your company’s incident statistics.  Why are we still having accidents after almost a century of more or less serious safety management efforts, scientific and technical progress and increased societal demands through better standards and regulations?

If the presumption that all accidents are preventable would be true, aren’t we trying hard enough after all?  Or can’t we after all?  Or is this (as some cynical folk think) just a phrase that is used to justify so-called ‘Zero Harm’ goals?  The latter thought isn’t so absurd, by the way, because ‘zero’ is only achievable if indeed all accidents can be prevented.

Some may argue that some things cannot be prevented because if someone’s out to get you, they surely will.  Safety professionals have thought long about this and that’s probably one reason that ‘Acts of God’ usually are excluded from accidents and that most ‘safety definitions’ of accidents (check a popular one on Wikipedia) describe them as “unintended” events thus excluding terrorism, sabotage and the like and sending these events over to the realm of security.

After some thoughts I’ve come to the conclusion that the often heard manta of “All Accidents Are Preventable” is true only if we add a couple of words.  Let’s discuss some good candidates:

All Accidents Are Preventable…

…In Theory

What theory that would be, I’m actually quite unsure about.  But some safety academics seem to think so.  By the way, the denominator “academics” here is meant in the meaning of “safety professionals living in ivory towers with little or no relation to reality”, not in the ordinary dictionary meaning of people involved in higher education or research of safety.

Actually, the term theory is not defined as “a contemplative and rational type of abstract or generalizing thinking, or the results of such thinking” (Wikipedia definition) either. Nor is it a “generalized explanations of how nature works”.  Rather we use ‘theory’ here as the opposite of ‘practice’ and one might even see it as a synonym for ‘dream’, ‘vision’ or even ‘delusion’.

…In Hindsight

In real life and at the sharp end decisions are usually made under difficult circumstances, a lot of uncertainty, limited knowledge and time pressure.  Mostly we manage very well, but sometimes the outcome of our decisions isn’t quite what we expected or hoped for.  We did our best, but things went otherwise because we did the wrong thing regarding the circumstances of which we hadn’t the full overview at the time.  As a result of all of this an accident happens.

These difficulties and limitations are significantly absent after the fact.  Then one suddenly has full overview of circumstances, there is plenty of time to reflect and contemplate, gather additional information (preferably to confirm a hypothesis) and best of all: outcomes of the decisions made are known, so no uncertainty at all!

We do have blind spots in real life, and so do organizations.  In hindsight we seemingly don’t suffer from this.  Of course there are still blind spots but at least we now see the things that went wrong, which are the things that we should have seen before, according to everyone pointing their fingers afterwards.

…Given unlimited knowledge, resources, perfect prediction (and quite some luck)

This is the best of the contextual candidates.  If we didn’t have those annoying limitations discussed before. If we just knew everything with an enormous deal of certainty and precision, including the results of our actions and decisions.  If we had unlimited resources to remove all hazards.  Truly, no accident would happen. Ever. Or rather never.

But, how realistic is that scenario?  People have limitations and resources (time, money, etc.) yet must face exactly the same problem.  Anyone who has experienced otherwise should really share his experience with us mere mortals.  It must have been a really boring experience by the way.  So where does that leave us who are living out there in the real world?

Let’s just face it, we cannot prevent everything.  Let’s just be very realistic about that.  We don’t even want to prevent absolutely everything – some things we just can live with (the proverbial finger cuts when filling paper into the printer being just one example).  This is clearly one reason that in many safety and OHS legislations the ‘reasonably’ criterion is found.

Mind you, this is not an argument out of fatalism! We cannot prevent everything, but that doesn’t take away the responsibility to try as hard as we can within reasonable boundaries.

Allow me to quote Prof. James Reason from the conclusion of his fine 2008 book “The Human Contribution”:

Safety is a guerrilla war that you will probably lose (since entropy gets us all in the end), but you can still do the best you can.

Let’s take these wise words at heart and get on it.  Maybe we cannot prevent all accidents, but we can prevent a substantial part if we want and work systematically and structurally.  Hopefully we’ll succeed in preventing the most important ones. Good luck!



Carsten Busch photoCarsten Busch has studied Mechanical Engineering and after that Safety. He also spent some time at Law School. He has over 20 years of HSEQ experience from various railway and oil & gas related companies in The Netherlands, United Kingdom and Norway. These days he works as Senior Advisor Safety and Quality for Jernbaneverket’s infrastructure division and is owner/founder of




The Blind Spots of Behavioral Observation Programs

Behavioral observation programs are a mainstay in many safety systems that are looking to move beyond compliance and get employees involved. The idea is pretty straightforward – have employees observe other employees doing job tasks. The observers then judge whether the behavior is “safe” or “unsafe” and provide immediate feedback to the employees who did the tasks. You seem to accomplish a lot with a program such as this, including:

  • Immediate and specific feedback to employees for “unsafe” behaviors, which enhances learning;
  • Employees get involved in the process and take ownership of safety at the site; and,
  • You get another feedback loop that you can use to identify exposures and risks at the site (you can also use it as a handy metric).

This sounds like a panacea for all your safety performance needs. So what’s the problem?

Well, the problem with most behavioral observation programs is that they don’t account for some blind spots that the programs tend to have, both practical and foundational.

Let’s start with an example of the practical – First, when it comes to identifying “safe” and “unsafe” behaviors, your employees are far more likely to identify obvious “unsafe” behaviors that lead to smaller accidents than they are to identify the less obvious behaviors that are more of a grey area and, coincidentally, are more associated with serious injuries and disasters. So, for example, behavioral observation programs are very good at identifying whether or not employees are using the required PPE for a given task. However, these programs are not very good at identifying whether technical procedures that are only indirectly related to safety are being followed or even if those procedures are adequate for the reality the employees are facing. In cases where deviance from procedures is normalized you might have employees note a given task as “safe” because that’s the way the job is normally done, without realizing the risks involved. So the program provides an unreliable data source, causing you to think that your system is “safe” when, in reality, you are drifting toward danger.

The bottom line from a practical perspective – behavior observation works for obvious behaviors. If “safe” and “unsafe” behaviors are not as obvious though then the behavior observation program may be a false indicator.

This leads to the foundational blind spot of behavior observation programs – the programs tend to assume that behavior is either “safe” or it is “unsafe.” This is categorically false. Behavior is inherently tied to the context and almost any behavior you can think of, if put in another context, is either safe or unsafe. Even the proverbial safety “no-no,” running with scissors, is sometimes the right thing to do (medical professionals run with scissors all the time in emergency situations).

Now it may be possible to identify a behavior that is always unsafe (using some definition of “safe” and “unsafe”), no matter what the context. But that’s not the point. If we really have to think hard to find something that’s always an unsafe behavior, is the idea that behavior is either “safe” or “unsafe” a really useful concept?

What if instead of a behavioral observation program we just had a performance observation program? Instead of judging whether the employee is doing things right or wrong, we just observe and try to understand how employees are doing work. Then, we ask questions (not just about the things we think they did wrong!), listen to stories, trying to find the best way to do the job in the context that the job is to be done. With the rich understanding of the reality the employees at the sharp end face, instead of telling them that what they are doing is wrong, we give them the tools (equipment, knowledge, time, etc.) they need to learn to adapt their behaviors to the contexts they face. We move past the obvious things and get to the real story of how work is performed in the organization. We move from a place of judgment to a place of cooperation. Then we not only get the basic advantages of traditional behavior observation programs noted above, we also eliminate the blind spots and build a foundation of trust between ourselves and the real source of safety in our organizations – our workers.


Ron Gantt photoRon Gantt is Vice President of Safety Compliance Management. He has over a decade experience is safety and health management. Ron is a Certified Safety Professional, an Associate in Risk Management, and a Certified Environment, Safety and Health Trainer. He has a Master of Engineering degree in Advanced Safety Engineering and Management, as well as undergraduate degrees in Psychology and Occupational Safety and Health. Ron specializes in safety leadership, system safety, safety management systems, and human and organizational performance improvement.


The Myths of Safety – React If You Will

Sometimes when you critically examine and expose well established myths you run the risk of having folks who believe the Myths attack “other” issues around the revealed “truths.” Some of it even gets “personal.” In the following article (and many other articles I’ve written) I understand this “danger” and I’m more than willing to take that risk. I’m hardly claiming absolute correctness and knowledge of these issues, but I do believe we should, as a profession, examine what and why we believe what we do.

Penn & Teller’s Showtime TV series is a perfect example. If you haven’t seen the series I highly recommend it. Not because I agree with everything they say but because what they do is challenge what they believe are myths and in some cases, lies. They encourage their viewers to think critically. The series is certainly not meant for the faint of heart. Their approach isn’t for everyone and it’s certainly an adult conversation with graphic language and at times has sexual content. This approach is used not to titillate but to be outrageous to get the viewer’s attention. I believe they accomplish these goals…get people’s attention and encourage viewers to critically think about what they believe is true. I’m not alone in enjoying their approach…they ran from 2003 – 2010. Check it out and keep your minds open; some of it is uncomfortable to watch.

Critical thinking is essential if we are to successfully help our fellow humans work and play safely. Our agreement is not. In fact we may learn more if we don’t agree. So let’s examine some of what I believe are the most prevalent and dangerous myths in the world of Safety Management. You may agree, you may disagree, and perhaps the real positive is that we’re at least examining what we believe to be true.

The Myths of Safety

1) Safety is #1

Some companies and professionals have adopted this “chant” as the ultimate statement of commitment to creating safety at their companies. The real issue is that your corporation is NOT created to be safe. The owners and shareholders have invested their money to make a profit, provide a service and/or to create a product. This is the reason for a corporation’s existence. How we accomplish this is indeed important. Doing it safely while being environmentally friendly, a good corporate citizen, ethical and legal is the real measurement of success. We need not number the priorities. They need to happen ALL AT THE SAME TIME! Safe Production is and should be the goal.

2) Counting Injuries is a Measurement of Safety

We’ve all done unsafe things and not felt the consequences of our unsafe behaviours. Standing on a chair, using a grinder without safety glasses, using a knife as a screwdriver are all examples of common unsafe behaviours we have done. That being the reality, unsafe/safe and injury/uninjured are NOT linked. AT ALL. If no injuries means we’ve been safe then we would have a great deal of evidence available to us to support that statement, right? Then consider how often you have done things unsafe and yet avoided injury. In this case, no injury was an outcome but how it was achieved was not by being safe.

3) Zero Harm/Injuries is a Commitment We MUST Believe In and Commit To

Thinking that something can’t be accomplished without believing in it is simply NOT true. The opposite is also NOT true. If this “faith” in something were the secret to accomplishment then believing in unicorns would have made them appear. Companies that have mistakenly linked Zero to some measure of safety are in error. No injuries can and does in many cases mean you were lucky. These types of goals also motivate some very wrong behaviours like hiding injuries through reclassification and accommodation.

4) Passing a Safety Audit Means You’ll Be Safe

There are many well intentioned standards and audits available in safety management. Many of them have impressive names with very long numbers attached to them. Some are international and have been created with “world-wide” input making them sound even more impressive. The reality is that most if not all are “opinion based” documents with little or no REAL evidence that they reveal any “secrets to success.” Groups of well-intentioned experts get together in a room and GUESS what they believe will work. Some of it is indeed highly intuitive and very much linked to good management practices. The problem comes with combining these “statements of intention” into something that if you PASS you will be on the road to success. As stated, there is little or no independent evidence that any of these work. In fact there is much evidence that they don’t. Passing an audit does nothing but state that you’ve “passed the audit.”

Most, if not all, of the popular audit instruments were created by well-meaning groups of people and are not based on any scientific evidence. Now, most of the questions in these audits are likely to be positives to your company outcomes but let’s examine a typical example question.

“Does your company have a signed Health & Safety Policy?” Arguably a good way to communicate your company’s intentions regarding the management of H&S. Problem is, the score. What is it worth? What are other questions in the audit worth toward your passing mark? Have they been measured in a test using control group companies which compare outcome measurements with inputs? If the scientific method has not been used to validate the audit… we have to admit that we are just guessing. Some very unsafe companies can and do pass audits. That being true, then this audit process is flawed. I’m not suggesting you abandon your audits. I am suggesting you read the results with a clear view of what the audit score may not be telling you about your safety management system.

5) All Incidents Are Preventable

What a beautiful idea…that ALL pain and suffering can be eliminated. Problem is that to prevent an incident, we would need absolute power over all things and absolute insight into the future consequences of our decisions. Absolutes in human experience don’t exist so the use of the word ALL makes the statement wrong without even considering what it takes to prevent incidents. See above for the other opposite end of the impossible scale (read ZERO)

6) Safety Can Be Done TO People

As in most human experiences “the few controlling the many” has a predictably poor outcome either in the short and/or long term. The idea that safety can be delivered like a pizza to passive workers who will just take our orders and comply is overly optimistic and frankly just the wildest of fantasies. So re-examine the Orientation DVD you’ve created and realize blasting passive workers with tons of information in a 20 minute DVD is not likely to have much of a long term impact on their safety. “Too much, Too Soon” comes to mind. This seems to be an efficient way to orient new employees. All too often we fail to really measure their retention and their resulting behaviours as an outcome of this “training.”

7) If We Make Non-Safety Illegal We’ll Reduce Unsafe Behaviour

At no time in human history have we eliminated undesired human behaviour through a “crime and punishment” approach. It hasn’t worked on our roadways with speeding and now the newest illegal act of driving distracted will hardly be eliminated by making rules and randomly (at best) pouncing on the violations. Human behaviour does work within a system of Activators, Behaviours and Consequences. This indeed is a complex area and has and is being studied continually. What we do know with some certainty is that random consequences are not very effective in changing behaviour. Being “caught” by some authority and then feeling the negative consequence of a fine can motivate some. It is in the full range of consequences that can provide very real motivators to support safe behaviours and help to take away the motivation to have unsafe behaviours.

The real knowledge about consequences is that positive consequences are much more influential and effective than negative. Focusing on the positive makes people WANT to get caught doing the safe behaviour. A focus on the negative enforcement accomplishes making people want to avoid being caught doing the prohibited. Is that really what we want…people avoiding punishment? A current example is how many “texters” are now trying to hide their “illegal” behaviour by texting while they drive with their phones in their lap out of sight of the enforcers. A win? Hardly. We’ve actually in all likelihood made it worse.


Well there you have it. Some of the most popular “myths” in safety management. You certainly don’t need to agree with what I’ve presented here, but you do need to examine (as we all do) what we believe and why we believe what we believe. As always, I’m always open to new ideas and views on these subjects… it’s what true professionals do.


Quilley - PhotoAlan D. Quilley is the author of The Emperor Has No Hard Hat – Achieving REAL Safety Results and Creating & Maintaining a Practical Based Safety Culture© . He is president of Safety Results Ltd., a Sherwood Park, Alberta OH&S consulting company ( You can reach him at

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