History and Hindsight in Safety

Originally posted on October 18, 2014 @ 8:30 AM

History and Hindsight in Safety

In this post I wish to continue the discussion about significance through a discussion of history. It was Weick who said: ‘I don’t know what I believe until I see what I do’. In other words, everything we ‘know’ is retrospective. Humans have unlimited hindsight but limited foresight. This is most apparent in the preoccupation of safety with counting injury statistics. Whilst the statistics are collected, in themselves they don’t tell us the ‘story’ of what they mean, significance is subjectively determined. Meaning is attributed. Unfortunately just because statistics show a trend toward zero doesn’t mean they have any predictive value. Looking at the pattern of heads and tails in Two Up doesn’t change probability or uncertainty.

When I was a child history was taught as the memorization of facts, tales of people of significance (kings and queens) and about imperialism, religion and war. Significance in history was determined by the teacher and government curriculum. We used to copy what the teacher wrote on the board and then drew a picture beside it to represent the story. In those days books and paper were expensive so we were quite frugal in what we did. Sometimes the real lesson we learned (hidden curriculum) was that a mistake (with ink) couldn’t be erased and you didn’t tear a page out. Your mistake stayed in the book, even ink erasers were only invented when I was a teenager. History was presented as events and memorizing the times of those events was crucial. I quickly lost interest in history. It wasn’t until later that a mentor made history ‘come alive’ for me and so I chose history as one of my first subjects in University and it was here I encountered the wonder of Annals History.

Annals History or the History of Mentalities is about the social psychology of people. The term comes from the French Annales School of History and refers to the history of attitudes, mindsets and dispositions. It denotes the social psychological and cultural nature of history. This school of history takes the shift off the emphasis on dates and puts the emphasis on learning about people, judgment and human decision making. Annals is more interested in understanding why people do what they do than counting the number of times they did it. The focus on socio psychological history teaches us about how people organize and about culture. This approach brings the ‘story’ back into his-story.

clip_image002My fascination with history and historiography has continued for the past 40 years, the history of art and architecture is also fascinating. When we understand hindsight as a mode of learning, counting data becomes less important and human decision making becomes paramount. With an interest in photography, art, architecture and history one gets to stimulate the imagination and contemplate the nature of decisions. This was the case recently when I visited the Hermitage Museum in St Petersberg (http://www.hermitagemuseum.org/ ). Whilst the museum itself (The Winter Palace) is breathtaking and the art amazing, the history is so instructive. Perhaps I was most stunned by standing in the dining room of Alexander Hall and thinking about the Russian revolution. The hands of the clock are stopped at 2.10, the time early in the morning on 26 October 1917 when the ministers of the Provisional Government were arrested in the Small Dining-Room. The time that changed the world.

What does this all mean for safety? It is interesting to observe the demand in safety for data, there seems nothing more important in safety than a thirst for injury data. What is astounding is the mythology that somehow the data tells a story of safety, of attributed significance. However, the reality is that data tells us nothing about human decision making, or its significance. It tells us nothing about culture other than that a particular culture loves to count. The data doesn’t tell us anything about the social psychology of decision making or culture and give no understanding of how decisions are made in that culture or organization. All the articulation of language and discourse about zero doesn’t tell us anything about the culture except that the organization is driven by absolutes and counting. Nothing is more nonsensical than the idea that ‘all accidents are preventable’ both a denial of history and human fallibility.

It is so easy to be seduced by data and somehow think that we now ‘know’ how that organization thinks about safety? It’s like memorizing dates but not knowing the real story about history. It’s like thinking the date itself is important rather than what affected people at that time. It’s like collecting dates rather than developing understanding of human decision making.

Unless the data fixation in safety is complemented by story it is of very little value. Perhaps safety would benefit from a look at Annals History but at present it seems that safety tends to take history as a repetition of itself.

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