Safety in Design for Who by Who?

Originally posted on May 26, 2014 @ 12:05 PM

poor design

Safety in Design for Who by Who?

By Dr Robert Long

Interest in safety in design has been expanding recently and like most other divisions of safety there is little presence in the literature of this sector on psychology or socialpsychology. This brief discussion asks the question: how can one espouse to be expert or concerned with safe design without a focus on socialpsychology? I find it odd that so many in the safety industry speak about safety as if it is both: a technical science and an objective engineering process. So much of the safety is consumed with the physicality of risk when this comprises so little of what keeps people safe. The old philosophy of ‘engineer out the idiot’ emerges once again as the believable myth of work health and safety.

For example: It is indeed peculiar that managers in safety think that a risk matrix somehow represents some scientific accuracy in the measurement of risk when at best it can only be a conversation tool. I was told the other day by a safety manager for a tier 1 company that their risk matrix was a ‘sacred untouchable safety instrument’. One is not even allowed to question its validity or design in his organisation. All I could reply with was: ‘censorship and indoctrination are the first steps in all propaganda and fundamentalism’. How strange to create such religious faith in a tool that at best only measures 3 or 4 aspects of risk when we know through the psychology of risk that more than 100 key indicators and heuristics mitigate or aggravate the attribution of risk.

Isn’t it peculiar that in the Code of Practice for the Safe Design of Building and Structures (Safe Work Australia, 2011) that the word ‘psychology’ or ‘social psychology’ has no mention. In only two places in this Code of Practice is there mention of ‘human’ behavior and only one mention of ‘error’. Remarkable, psychology, culture and the psychology of risk get no mention. Safe design should be about much more than a token mention of behavior and errors.

Safety in design is defined as:

‘a design process that eliminates, or minimises, potential and actual work health and safety hazards by involving decisions makers and considering the life cycle of the designed plant, substance or structure. For designers, this means applying systematic risk management techniques when making choices about design, materials and methods of manufacture or construction to enhance safety of those who will use, handle, store, construct, assemble, dismantle, dispose or be effected by the operation of the plant, substance or structure.  ’ (Worksafe ACT, Safe Design accessed 27 July 2012).

Most of the discussion in Safe Design is about engineering, technicalities, ergonomics and the elementary fundamentals of hazard identification. There is also some discussion about the hierarchy of controls in Safe Design but this is indeed simplistic. Even the handbook (HB 327: 2010 Communicating and consulting about risk) to the Risk Management Standard AS/NZS 31000: 2009 mentions the importance of heuristics. (Heuristics are experience-based techniques for problem solving, learning, and discovery. Heuristics are mental short cuts and micro-rules developed through experience that assist humans to make rapid decisions). However, there is still little discussion in the safe Design genre about heuristics.

Research (Bargh etc) shows that humans make most of their decisions in the unconscious and rationalize them afterwards. Most of our decisions come from our implicit ‘gut’ knowledge. This is why people often get amazed by the judgments they witness and then dismiss those judgments as ‘stupid’. Yet when it comes to discussion about safety in design there is no mention of the psychology of risk, culture, psychosocial dynamics or socialpsychology. Most of the discussion in the genre of Safe Design is about compliance to standards. When there is some mention of people or culture meaning is assumed not defined.

I was in the centre of Melbourne recently and observed some workers placing metal sheets on the face of a building. The workers were in a boom lift extending out side the edge of a building three stories high. The lift seemed quite new and had excellent guard rails designed to prevent the occupant from falling. I watched as the operator extended the lift as far as it could go and then watched him stand on the guard railing to get extension he needed to fix the top piece of metal to the wall. He wore no harness. In this case the rail designed to keep the worker safe became an extension ladder.

There are many words missing in the culture of the safety industry perhaps the least things discussed in safety are: imagination, creativity and learning. Yet it is here that the essentials of safety are found. Whilst there is plenty of discussion about compliance and zero, the industry seems uninterested in understanding human judgment and decision making. (If you are interested in following up this article chase up authors: Slovic, Plous, Hallinan and Fine).

So, who does the design for safety in design? It is indeed peculiar that we should employ engineers and architects as a our principal people concerned with safety in design when their training has next to nil focus on the psychology of risk and social psychology. Most safety training does not include this focus either. So when it comes to safety in design, even if we include a safety expert with the engineer, we still have no expertise in human judgment and decision making. Such a long way to go in the journey.

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