File image: Flickr.com

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of safety in the workplace? If you work in an industrial environment you probably thought of signs, rules and paperwork…lots of paperwork.

In the service sector, you may have thought of the dangers of incorrect posture, staring at a screen for too many hours or sitting at your desk. Sitting is the new smoking you know. Regardless of the industry, this is not a topic that typically gets people excited.

Considering the recent listeriosis outbreak in South Africa, workplace safety is a topic that can become very important, very quickly. However, many companies lament the fact that they are seeing a diminishing return from their safety efforts.

This leaves us with a fundamental question. If companies are investing so heavily in this area, why are incidents still happening? This is a surely a question worth answering and most of us can agree that companies should be able to pursue their goal without harming people. Yet the curious case remains that people are often disengaged and, quite frankly, annoyed with the topic…

Somewhere, through all the efforts to improve safety, we have forgotten about the very thing we are trying to protect…the person.

We attempt to engineer and regulate every possible interaction a person may have with risks in their environment. While important, this approach has had an unintended consequence in that people have become so used to risks they are lulled into a false sense of security.

Reducing the need to think
Through our over-emphasis on engineering and regulatory approaches to safety, we have reduced the need for a person to think about what they are doing. More frightening still, some companies seem to prefer it this way.

We have heard from employees across different industries, that they are not involved in planning their work or making work-related decisions. As some employees may put it, “We get paid to work, not to think”. However, once an incident happens you are almost guaranteed to hear the ubiquitous “Why didn’t you think?!!” response. Possibly… because that is exactly what we are training people to do.

It makes sense to control and remove risks where possible - hence the critical role of safety engineering. It also makes sense to learn from best practice and entrench these as guidelines that different companies can follow. On top of this, it really makes sense not to disregard a tool, that has been refined over several million years to efficiently handle input, adjust to its surroundings and which conveniently has a self-preservation drive built right in.

It’s the brain
It is quite ironic that at the time when we are placing ever more sensors and learning algorithms into machines to better enable them to deal with their environments, we are suppressing those same qualities in human beings. Granted, humans are not always the easiest things to work with, but the same goes for microwaves and we have learnt to work effectively with them.