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April 1, 2015

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Comment: safety in boxes

By David Towlson

Politics has never been my strong point. I find the whole thing a bit confusing, because I don’t know which boxes I fit in and I frequently say the wrong thing as a result.

As humans, we love to put things in boxes. I’m not saying some things don’t need to be in boxes (like Jack-in-the-) but we love to do it, even if they don’t fit.

I can understand it, because it helps turn an apparent complicated set of variables into something neat and manageable. Insurance companies and politicians do it all the time – the latter do it with voters as they struggle to appeal to specific sectors of voter targets by creating apparently single issues affecting a defined group. They divide people up into age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, region, etc. They create typical profiles and ascribe singular views and issues to these groups, as if the issue is exclusive to that group. But we know things are far more complex than that. For example, the Scottish independence referendum was often portrayed as an issue just for Scottish people, but, like it or not, it was a whole country issue.

Reducing complexity can be a good thing, but it doesn’t always help. It can lead to seriously misinterpreting reality and, worse, engineering a solution that causes more harm than good. We do the same in safety and health; we put things (and people) in boxes and may not appreciate the wider appeal or implications. We may target a specific group, effectively and arrogantly dictating to them what we think their issues should be (and alienating everyone else in the process by ignoring them and subtly saying their position is not important). When we look at specific risks – or groups of employees – in isolation, we are playing the same games as the politicians.

Risks and people need to be considered holistically, i.e. in context, because they are interdependent – something which is not always appreciated until after an incident. Yes, that’s difficult to do, but leads to a better solution in the end. People and risks came well before conceptual boxes. And, astonishingly, our boxes aren’t always right or helpful, and even if they are, may not be rigid, but fluid. I think I may just need to lie down and take a rest.

David Towlson is director of training and quality for RRC

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