Is Safety Common Sense?

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by Glyn Jones

The root of the idea of common sense is that it is the basic understanding held by just about everybody.  Common sense is a basic ability to perceive, understand and judge things in a way that is common to nearly all people. It is something that can be reasonably expected of nearly everyone without any need for debate or question.

A couple of factors affect something that may appear to be common sense and these are:

Perspective and Time. 

Common sense is a learned behaviour that actually changes over time. For example, a young child puts his hand into a cup of steaming water and is burned. Common sense will tell adults that if there is steam rising from a cup of water then it is hot, but because the child has not yet experienced this, he does not yet possess the required “common sense.” Common sense is based on experience, education and training. Therefore, when it comes to working safely, common sense is only “common” when employees have an awareness and understanding of the risks associated with the work tasks and work conditions.

Safety will in fact become common sense when all employees are able to perceive risks when they arise, understand the consequences of exposure to the risks and make timely decisions to not tolerate any risk that is inconsistent with the corporate risk posture.

So how can I instil “Common Sense” into my employees?

Common sense requires competence. The focus needs to be on building employee competence. The goal is not to develop common sense; rather, it is to seek competence. A “competent person” is one who is capable of identifying existing and predictable hazards in the surroundings or working conditions that are unsanitary, hazardous or dangerous to employees, and who has authorization to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate them.

Conduct proper Incident investigation.

When we undertake an incident investigation after someone has been seriously injured or killed, we are looking back at the actions, behaviours and conditions of the event. Looking backwards we can see with perfect clarity — we often say hindsight is 20-20 — and in doing so, we are further developing competence. With the advantage of hindsight, things often seem clear because the pressures and stress of the everyday workplace do not cloud them. When we look back, we see things that are now obvious to us but were not obvious to those involved in the incident.

Conduct regular site inspections and audits.

When we inspect a workplace to identify unsafe conditions we are also, in effect, looking backwards to understand how or why work processes allowed these unsafe conditions to exist.

Our employees are not born with common sense; they acquire it throughout their work lives through experience, education and training. Common Sense can be learned from the experiences of others as well as our own, and can be taught in the classroom. Workers are in fact the best ones to prevent themselves from being injured. This is achieved by teaching them to recognize hazards, properly and thoroughly assess risks and implement appropriate controls. It is also achieved by communicating to them how others have taken risks and been injured or killed. That’s common sense.