Safety Culture And The Victim’s Chair.

green wooden chair on white surface

We have a propensity to blame workers. We tend to bring out the victims chair. We place the worker in it, congregate around it and set up situations where the worker is the problem that needs to be fixed. We do it all the time and its a flawed form of leadership and reasoning.  It’s an unhelpful fixation that undermines the potential of creating good safety culture. We have all done it.

This Post is about removing that chair.

I start by drawing on the thinking of Todd Conklin because it’s clever and helps to illustrate what I am about to write. Every accident or event has three components, context, consequence (the bad outcome) and retrospect (the way we view the accident). Consequence is the least interesting part of an accident because its already happened. It’s also a seductive distraction because it detracts away from an accidents context. Conklin also suggests workers don’t cause accidents they trigger latent conditions that set in motion the consequence.

I think we deal with context by pulling out the victims chair. We justify this and process it as part of an accident investigation and as a result we keep the victims chair in play.

Why did the worker fall off the roof? Gravity. Inadequate fall protection had failed the worker. Are you now thinking about how the workers behaviors triggered the consequence and are now led to improving systems? Do you see the victims chair becoming irrelevant. And are you being swayed to looking more towards systems?

I am going out on a limb by suggesting workers are as safe as the systems they work within. If a worker is harmed then for the most part, the system is the underlying and inflexible cause.

Don’t get me wrong, workers do have a role to look after themselves and others but their ability to achieve that is heavily influenced by safety culture and its leadership. More importantly, safety culture cannot grow with the risks confronting the worker. What’s the solution? I don’t know the whole answer but I do believe worker participation in designing and evolving systems is critical. Why does that not happen enough in a meaningful way?

In a previous Post I have reiterated leadership tends to focus on practices because they are easier to see, measure and change. It’s another distraction that leads us away from adopting good systems and the capacity to adapt those systems to real time risks. By genuinely including workers in informing systems we start to remove the victims chair and replace it with a reciprocating conversation about safety culture.

Indigenous workers are among the most at-risk in the world. Indigenous Māori workers are 44% more likely to be seriously injured at work than the general population. Alike indigenous workers they are unfortunately conditioned to the victims chair, and not only within health and safety. Don’t be surprised if they roll their eyes at you with a, here we go again attitude. And if they intuitively tell you the answers you want hear rather than the information you need to know.

Using the victims chair is an adverse inquisition. It represents worst practice. There’s an opportunity to show leadership. Get rid of it and replace it with a meaningful conversation about safety culture.

Muhammad Ali’s poem was: Me. We. It’s an adept finish for this Post.


TFZ Safety Conference 2016 – Todd Conklin.

Author: VK Walker

I am wanting describe a model for indigenous safety culture. As a PhD student I am interested in health and safety research including cultures, diversity and the use of traditional indigenous knowledge to inform modern health and safety practices. I am also a New Zealand Government Health and Safety Inspector.

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