‘Health and safety is common sense,’ or is it?
‘Health and safety is just common sense.’ Group Health and Safety Manager, Joe Smith, says he has heard that statement all his life. As he has gained experience in the area, his feelings towards it have changed from initially seeing the logic in the statement, to questioning it, to now hating hearing it uttered.
Joe Smith (Grad IOSH), Group Health and Safety Manager.
“Health and safety may indeed be common sense, but ‘common sense’ is anything but common! Hazard perception, intelligence, good judgement and awareness of responsibilities isn’t common. Certainly not in the sense of the word that would suggest it is widespread. It is not common to all people. And it certainly can’t be relied on as a control measure.
“I think, for the most part, the phrase is well intentioned and to some people good sense and sound judgement is part of who they are. Often, they are very practical people that who have had many years work experience. They’ve possibly had or seen a serious accident too. The ‘common sense’ they are thinking of, is actually due to their own natural learning and experience. Rather than academic studies, they have equivalent empirically gained safety awareness. This very valid form of knowledge cannot be expected to be something everyone is born with, or that they will have in the early stages of their career. You also can’t expect something to be obvious or common sense to someone who has perhaps worked in retail all their lives and now works in an industrial environment. It’s often only ‘obvious’ because you’re used to it.
“I think not being aware of that, and assuming everyone has the same level of practical experience and level of attention, is mostly why the phrase ‘safety is common sense’ is used inaccurately. It’s used with good intentions. Although, sometimes it is also brought out for use when people don’t want you to impose rules. Saying that rules aren’t needed and that applying common sense will achieve the same. ‘Why do that? It’s just common sense, isn’t it!?’
“This comparison in this context subtly undermines the safety practitioner’s many hours of study and experience. Distilling all that often-complex research and application of the law down to what the average layman apparently finds obvious.
“So, it is used with good intentions inaccurately, and on some occasions to object to safety bureaucracy. Those instances aren’t really a problem. Where I find it has potentially dangerous consequences, is when a manager expects that safety can be managed with common sense applied by his workers. ‘If only they’d use common sense,’ he laments. And even after many instances of people doing stupid things, people still believe in common sense. Have a think about it I bet you can think of ten examples of something someone did that’s stupid for every instance where common sense, good judgement and logic were used to solve a safety issue.
“Sense, as in practical, applied knowledge and experience, certainly does exist. But the ‘common’ prefix, in my experience, is not always the case.”
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