Over the last 50 years or so, our thinking about safety has evolved considerably.
It started by eliminating or “whacking” hazards. After all, if there is no hazard there is no potential for harm. It soon became obvious eliminating all hazards is not possible. So, dealing with the remaining ones became the focus. We reasoned that if people knew about the hazard and how to avoid contact with it, they would prevent incidents. This approach lead to Safety Management Systems, what we refer to it as first-generation safety or “whack-a-hazard”.
Incidents decreased, but it didn’t prevent them all.
The next step occurred when we realised a person was always involved in the incident. The accepted view of the time was behaviours resulted primarily from conscious decisions or choices. And because choices are deliberate, we thought if people understood the importance of safety they would make safe choices.
Management increased communication about the importance of safety and because messages are more effective when delivered in person, so interactions increased. First by managers and supervisors and then migrating to peer-to-peer. These became the avenue for one person influencing another to keep safety front-of-mind.
The strongest message introduced into safety was rules, typically in the form life-saving, absolute or cardinal rules. Management codified its expectations and directly communicated the importance of safety in this manner.
We refer to this approach as second-generation safety.
The downside with second-generation safety is the “deliberate choice dilemma”. If everything we do is a deliberate choice, then an incident is the result of a “bad” or “wrong” conscious decision. With rules came consequences as bad or wrong choices are addressed by a disciplinary process. Punishment for bad choices moved us from “whack-a-hazard” to “whack-a-person”.
Incidents decreased further for a time, but it did not prevent them all.
Importantly, sustainability was an issue. As we had yet to learn, we need considerable effort to maintain any message front-of-mind. Also, evidence was mounting against the deliberate choice hypothesis, through advances in neuroscience.
The latest and most eye-opening step in safety is being revealed right now. But not from safety gurus or psychologists. It is a move from soft science to hard science, or from psychology to biology through neuroscience.
The most important, and hardest to accept discovery, centers on human decision-making. Neuroscience has found 95% of what people do is not a deliberate choice. Rather it’s driven subconsciously in the form of a skill or habit.
This discovery changes a foundational tenet of second generation safety. No longer are the majority of our decisions conscious or deliberate.
This fundamental truth has profound implications for our understanding of why people do what they do. It supersedes the primary premises of first and second-generation safety. Eliminating hazards and providing knowledge is good to have but not enough to prevent all incidents. Critically, the vast majority of decisions are not front-of-mind, deliberate choices.
Most of what we do is subconscious (below the surface). Our actions emanate from deep areas of the brain and are based on repetition and a lack of “bad” consequences. The bottom line is what we do automatically (our habits) plays a much larger role in keeping us safe than deliberate choices.
The classical example is driving and texting. Most people know texting while driving is illegal and it increases risk considerably. Their conscious minds are fully informed, but they still do it. Why?
Neuroscience tells us why. The reason is; they have done it plenty of times before and gotten away with it. So the subconscious mind does not see the activity as dangerous and allows it to happen. Repetition forms neural networks. These networks automatically enact behaviour, without the conscious mind being part of the decision-making process.
This new approach, which we refer to as Third Generation Safety, based on how our brain actually works, will take some time to get used to. Leaders still play a crucial role, but they need to update the tools of their trade. “Whack-a-hazard” and “whack-a-person” have helped improve safety performance to a point.
The next step in improvement will come from our growing knowledge of how subconscious mental processes (skills and habits) affect safety behaviour.
And how do you build safe skills and habits? Well, the only tried and tested way to build new skills and habits is through deliberate practice. Repeating the desired behaviour, with regular quality reflection and expert review.
In our experience, organisations which focus on embedding safer skills and habits see improved safety performance of 30-70% within 6-12 months irrespective of where they are along their safety journey.