Anker & Marsh

Author Bio ▼

Dr Tim Marsh PhD, MSc, CFIOSH, CPsychol, SFIIRSM is MD of Anker and Marsh. Visiting Professor at Plymouth University he is considered a world authority on the subject of behavioural safety, safety leadership and organisational culture.As well as many of the world's most recognisable industrial names Tim has worked with diverse organisations such as the European Space Agency, the BBC, Sky TV, the RNLI and the National Theatre in his 25 year plus consultancy career.He has key noted and chaired dozens of conferences around the world including the closing key note at the Campbell Institutes inaugural International Thoughts Leaders event in 2014. He has written several best-selling books including Affective Safety Management, Talking Safety, Total Safety Culture, the Definitive Guide to Behavioural Safety and Organised Wellbeing. Previously he led Manchester Universities ground-breaking research team into behavioural safety methodologies in the 1990s.
December 12, 2023

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Can we be too predictable?

Tim (Mystic) Marsh shares a case study addressing the ‘San Andreas’ fault of accident prevention mindset.

First, let me try and predict your company’s next LTI.

It’ll regard an activity that comes with only a moderate level of risk and will occur to someone reasonably experienced who has (therefore) habituated to that risk and undertaken it safely hundreds if not, thousands of times. On the day in question (or probably, more precisely, at the moment in question), they’ll be distracted or angry or tired or under time pressure; or a combination of all three

Line of fire

At this moment they will either lose control of something – possibly equipment but more likely to be their balance and/or grip – or they’ll drift into a line of fire.

I said this to a room full of people a while ago at an off-site safety day. Later that day, the coach taking the group back to site needed to park in an area where plant operations have to co-exist with pedestrians at times (as space is short). The person tasked with seeing the coach park up and ensure all onboard disembarked safely (a task they had done many times) was temporarily blinded by the strong headlights, backed up into a low barrier (that had been there for decades), fell over, cut his head and popped a rib. A visit to A&E for stitches and a concussion assessment followed.

Not very clever of me of course – I was just following the data.

Mystic Meg predicts you’ve recently split with your spouse despite a holiday to try and save the relationship because they notice you have a white tan line ring around your finger. It’s this ‘actually, quite easy to predict’ issue that is ultimately central to this article.

In a previous article, I tried to answer a challenge from management about F***wits who have daft accidents, which really points the finger at individuals and is clearly a subset of the blame-the-victim variety.

For organisations that do take safety seriously, there’s a second shift that’s required. 

From irritation and blame to frustration and care

Many management teams have evolved beyond blame and irritation to care and frustration. But it’s still a mindset often pointing in the wrong direction. Training here often falls in the ‘Understand your Alpha and Beta brainwaves’ box and the conscious/unconscious competence model explains it well.

  • Unconsciously incompetent: I don’t know how to drive, indeed don’t even know I don’t know as I have only ever seen a pedal bike!
  • Consciously incompetent: I’d like to be able to drive a car but I can’t.
  • Consciously competent: I’ve passed my test but I’m still on green plates and concentrating pretty hard still when I’m driving. When I get to a complicated junction and my friend is still rabbiting on, the expression, “Would you please shut the f*** up a minute?” might well be used.
  • Unconsciously competent: I’ve just driven from Wales to London. I had several heated/fascinating hands-free phone calls/can tell you lots about the news/the lives of recently deceased people from Lives Remembered/what I think of the latest song releases or my travel partner’s love life…but I can remember almost nothing of the drive itself.

Obviously, it’s that latter category that aligns with the prediction above and by realising this, organisations are keen to urge people to be mindful. As above, they may even roll out Alpha and Beta state training for all. Leaving it there, however, is, I’d like to argue, a big mistake and there are two things an organisation really should do on top of this approach.

Two key methodologies of facilitation

One is to engage and energise people (as described in the previous article) so that alertness/situational awareness is maximised – in short, transformational leadership habits and safety differently style ‘what do you need?’ based-dialogue. Note, however, no matter how well we do that it’s still only maximised, aiming for as constant alertness simply isn’t possible. Therefore, the second is to proactively build in leeway for those (inevitable) vulnerable moments – a previous article on the changes made by Formula 1 regarding halos, neck braces tyre walls and run-off areas is a good case study here.

Essentially then, urging people to move from unconscious back to conscious isn’t productive – instead facilitate that as best we can and get in front of it with design solutions for those vulnerable moments when the inevitable happens.

To go back to the classic driving example – hands-free conversations are suggested to be about 80% as dangerous as hands-on conversations, as it’s the distraction not the physicality that’s the main problem. There’s a strong case for beefing up the regulations and some companies such as Schlumberger have made an autonomous decision to do this. Despite knowing this, few of us would be thrilled if they were banned entirely. However, I’m aware of the data so when I am ‘hands-free’ I slow down a meaningful amount and take that ‘only a fool breaks the two second rule’ and make it four seconds.

And like all cars these days I have crumple zones, anti-lock brakes, airbags side impact protection – should those precautions not prove enough.

Going backwards?

And what about the accident I mentioned at the beginning? If there’s simply no space to expand the car park to separate plant and people, meaning walking backward is sometimes inevitable, then perhaps a strip of floor studs to warn them that they’re close to a barrier (very similar to Pelican crossings, would be useful. Or something similar.

Just don’t give a lecture on the need to be unconsciously competent. Use words like ‘complacency’, when you’d more accurately describe their mindset as ‘habituated to risk’ and hope that’ll work – subtle changes in the words used to describe something can make a huge difference to mindset and response, but that’s another article!

We’ve come a long way since we regularly blamed the victim. We need also to learn to not be frustrated by individual fallibility. We just need to move to the final mindset where we pro-actively risk manage it.

*Cover image credit: Unsplash/petr sidorov

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Nigel Evelyn-dupree
Nigel Evelyn-dupree
7 months ago

I don’t think so as, presenteeism grows exponentially and employees continue to carry-on regardless of self-harming that has to be predictable!?

21st Digital Century work-stress fatigue and effectively self-harming

7 months ago

I think what Tim is saying is that if anything is predictable, then we need to get behind it before it becomes a problem or causes further injury. So, if presenteeism or carrying on regardless of self-harming are predictable, what are we doing about it so it doesn’t become a bigger concern?

7 months ago

I’m not sure i understand that comment Nigel … could you clarify what you mean by that?

Nigel Evelyn-dupree
Nigel Evelyn-dupree
7 months ago
Reply to  Tim

Simply that no one knew what to do about “it” at the time, DSE user operator ergonomics in the 1990’s other than addressing the workstation itself blamed for any MSD’s ignoring the visual operator-equipment hazards specifically the, out of the box bright-white background as, conventionally hard copy text had been traditionally viewed against a white contrast accepting, over time “glare” was acknowledged as a visual stressor and contributing factor to eye-strain just not initially attributed to back-lit very high contrast bright-white background to text just reflection. Nevertheless, some twenty odd years later Screen Fatigue associated with sub-optimal operator “screen interface”… Read more »

7 months ago

Thank you Nigel.