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December 16, 2015

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Black Box Thinking: What health and safety should learn from aviation

Murray Ferguson, Commercial Director of Pro-Sapien Software, discusses how important it is for us to learn from the health and safety data we produce, and the mistakes we make, interrogating errors as part of our future strategy for success.

Books about achieving greater success are all too common these days, but this book certainly communicates a message that resonates with me that I think will strike a chord with you too.

I started reading Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth about Success because I saw its author, Matthew Syed, on TV talking about how incremental change can produce greater success. What I had not anticipated was just how poignant the content of Black Box Thinking would be from a health and safety management perspective.

There are a number of standout references in the book, the most explainable is perhaps the different mind-set towards learning within the aviation industry and the healthcare industry.  The difference is stark; the aviation industry once was very dangerous, with many flights ending in disaster. However, through learning and the extreme focus on safety, flying is now the safest form of travel.

Conversely, the health care industry remains responsible for the third biggest killer in the western world: preventable medical mistakes. This is not to say that in healthcare personnel are less caring – their career choice alone indicates strong diligence and desire to do right. So why is there such a difference in the safety performances of healthcare and aviation?

Once boiled down, the difference is primarily fuelled by attitude – mistakes are made over and over again where a profession stigmatises error.  Syed talks about the paradox of success where the mistakes and often lives lost within the aviation industry have contributed to the safety of modern flying.  This is partly down to appropriate feedback mechanisms being in place to ensure the industry learns from previous mistakes. If a pilot experiences a near-miss, a report is logged. In the health care industry where there is a significant presence of blame culture, or when a surgeon makes a mistake, it is not so openly addressed.

So, how can we learn from this in health and safety? The clue is in the title – similar to an in-plane black box, we must record all critical data for investigations and, ultimately, improvements in safety. In order to learn from our mistakes, an appropriate system must be in place for capturing and reporting on all relevant information.

Syed suggests organisations must “interrogate errors as part of their future strategy for success”, which is all too important in the modern landscape of health and safety management. Instead of viewing errors or near-misses as events that need blamed on someone, we should view them as opportunities for learning, and to improve the safety of our workplaces. We can do that by ensuring absolutely everything is recorded, analysed and in-turn avoided in future.

Anyone looking to promote near-miss, close call and positive intervention within their business should add this book to their Christmas list. It’s full of facts, figures, studies and true insight into the possibility of improving the workplace and the wider world we live in by turning failure into success.

Murray (2)

Murray Ferguson is the Commercial Director at Pro-Sapien Software and has been involved in providing computer software to large organizations for over 15 years. Having worked with a wide range of high-risk industries deploying EHS solutions, Murray is well positioned to offer insight into how health and safety is approached, and how performances can improve.

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