We’re all idiots


As an alien just visiting earth, I have observed that humans have a capacity for invention that is staggering. For those brought up on ‘human factors and ergonomics’ (HFE) thinking, you’ll know that this can lead to serious accidents, crime or both. A casual observer might be forgiven for thinking that the health and safety profession and the law seem to spend much of their time trying to stamp out innovation ( or at least make it very difficult) and make people use standardised, tried and tested approaches. There is a lot to be said for this but it can also stifle innovation. Granted there is often flexibility within rules and procedures for consideration of significant changes. Some industries and companies are undoubtedly more innovative than others but by and large we feel safer when things are being done in established, familiar ways.

In investigating accidents, we might not be looking at what people did right (or even nearly so) or what innovations they were inadvertently introducing. Instead, there’s a focus on what people did wrongly according to our procedure. This is an occupational hazard in safety – risks are transformed into a nemesis that must be eliminated or controlled rather than managed. If we judge an accident sequence purely against an established procedure or method, we will end up with a long list of things people did wrong. Looking through a different filter could enable retrieval of ideas for how to do things very differently.

There are numerous pictures spread over the internet of so-called ‘fools’ and ‘idiots’ flouting established safe practices to get the job done. Some of these are obviously counterfeit but many are not. They are often held up as examples to ridicule in a sometimes self-righteous way. There is sometimes a competition to discover the most foolish example. To ridicule others for apparent idiocy (and to do idiot things) is entirely human – I do it, you do it, we all do it. Yes, we may present it as a ‘learning point’ (and some indeed are valuable for this) but still these presentations are tainted with ridicule as if we, as safety people, could never do such a thing.

But within some of these examples are illustrations of man’s ingenuity to circumvent immediate difficulties or frustrations or increase efficiency (sometimes born of laziness). This is active problem solving at work. Granted, they may not be very effective or appropriate (hence the accident or near miss) but still there is the start of an idea. I’m suggesting that such observations should be given more consideration rather than discounted as idiotic safety violations.

Innovation is, by its very nature, untried and so can be inherently more dangerous. Mistakes can easily be made due to a failure to fully understand the context, lack of proper materials and time constraints. Solutions by individuals are sometimes quickly fashioned on site and not quite up to the job, even though the basic idea is there.

I am not saying that people who don’t follow safe procedures are right. I am not saying that people don’t do genuinely ‘stupid’ things (which even they will admit when they’ve thought about it). But I am saying that we can be guilty of discounting everything they did as ‘stupid’ and unsafe. We can be guilty of thinking there is only a single method for doing a job safely (our way) and not truly learning from them to do things differently.