What’s Next After “Whack-a-Hazard” or “Whack-a-Person”?


What’s Next After “Whack-a-Hazard” or “Whack-a-Person”?

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.