Food for thought

While strolling through the natural forests surrounding Vienna, SHEQ MANAGEMENT columnist Brian Darlington reflected on the orthodox approach to health and safety, while realising that it has to change.

One Saturday recently, I decided to take a walk around Vienna – with my mental sight set on semiotics and how the signs and symbols reveal aspects of the culture that we experience. My mind wandered off this objective, however, as I took a right turn and walked through the natural forests – alone.

Enjoying the fresh air, nature and the sound of the birds (which have arrived now that winter has gone), I walked along paths, among the trees and along the banks of streams, while contemplating the way we go about things in regard to safety.

Over the past couple of years, through my studies and discussions with a friend (Mike Kruger), my “mind’s eye” has moved from focusing on the orthodox style of safety to elements of the social psychology of risk. A new way of thinking has opened up to me, which I wished had happened a lot earlier in my career.

As I walked, I thought about how people in the safety industry need to realise that much of what we have been doing for many years is not going to be suitable and effective going forward.

I came across several large trees that had been damaged. Some had fallen to the ground, while others were leaning against adjacent trees. A few were almost snapped in half, and were being supported by their own branches on the ground.

These trees made me think of the term “Zero Harm” and of Covid-19, which is taking its toll around the world – not only on the people who’re becoming physically ill, but also on many who will suffer mental illness due to stress, loneliness and financial concerns.

What struck me was the thought of how any hospital could promote the idea of Zero Harm and that all injuries are preventable while, at the same time, hospitals expect their medical doctors, nursing staff, paramedics and others to continue their work of healing people and saving lives.

People following a career in the safety sphere need to take some time for self-reflection.  They have to reflect on the focus in place in many companies, across the globe, relating to the safety and health of their employees, contractors and communities. They have to ponder whether these efforts are on the right things and whether these are truly adding value.

The approach to safety needs to change in regard to the messages that are created. The way that companies deal with the safety of their employees and contractors also has to change.

The old methods – of continuously adding systems and increasing paperwork – will not get companies to the desired level of providing safe and healthy workplaces, nor will they promote open, honest discussions related to safety and health at work.

Surely, safety has come to a fork in the road and decisions have to be taken on which route to follow – such as whether the orthodox approach to safety and management will be followed or whether a new approach will be taken.

An approach where the social psychology elements of risk are introduced. An approach where the mind-set of individuals is taken into account. An approach where group dynamics and the environment impact safety and the way people behave.

I believe that those employed in the safety field, as well as leaders in all industries, have to break the mould and do things differently.

It isn’t easy and I do not doubt that there will be many obstacles along the way, big and small, which includes changing our mind-sets, as safety leaders, as well as those of general management. However, these obstacles can be overcome by ensuring an understanding of the social psychology of risk and through continuous engagement with stakeholders.

It is not about companies having to replace everything that they have implemented, but rather about finding a balance between the issues related to controls, as well as the interplay of group dynamics.

On leaving the tranquillity of the forests and walking back to my apartment, I did see something related to semiotics. It was a mandala painted on the walkway next to a channel feeding off the Danube River and running through the city. It reminded me that there are opposing forces in everything that we do, in our beliefs and in our focus and efforts. We just need to understand these forces and learn to manage them to obtain the best possible outcome – in this case, the best possible outcome is providing a safe and healthy working environment for all.

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