Rewarding safety milestones a recipe for disaster

With four deaths in Queensland coal mines in the past year, and many more nationally, an industrial psychologist has suggested that our pride in safety management is partially to blame.

Speaking at the Queensland Mining Industry Health and Safety Conference in Townsville, SAFEmap International president Corrie Pitzer told the ABC there was a need for mine managers to “dramatically rethink” their approach to safety.

"The better we become with managing safety, the worse we become in leading the culture of safety, because the good things we do in managing safety actually drives a culture that is detrimental to the organisation,” he said.

Pitzer explained that safety systems which focussed on small incidents often underwent periods without a major incident, using resources and then resulting in rewards and bonuses being given to staff in recognition of milestones for successful implementation of those systems.

“[This] introduces into the organisation fear, fear to upset the apple cart, fear to respond, fear to notify when things are not going right,” he said.

“So we actually become victims of what we call risk secrecy.”

Pitzer blamed the methods of human resource management for lack of reporting of incidents, which helped to meet safety achievement milestones and retain bonuses.

“We are rewarding absence of accidents as a valid indicator of safety, and that’s impossible to beat, it’s an invalid indicator,” he said.

Levels of success in markers such as number of days without incident lead to complacency, and a delusion of consistency that the safety systems are functioning well, as illustrated by the example of the Challenger space program, which functioned well 19 times before catastrophic failure.

Pitzer said that those bonuses meant people were less likely to report safety breaches, which could later lead to dangerous situations and potential serious accidents.

According to Pitzer it was also dangerous to plan around the idea of the fallibility of humans in order to design safety systems.

“The human being is not the problem, the human being is responding to a culture and systems around them, where if they make mistakes we blame it on them.”

“That is fundamentally flawed, but these organisations do that.”

The South African industrial psychologist suggested that in order to change the approach to safety we need to find different ways to respond to risks.

“The human being is an incredibly capable entity, we’re so much more able than machines,” he said.

“We can do incredible things, yet in safety we tell people “you are stupid and we will design that out of the system because you make mistakes”, and because that’s such a negative focus it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“If we have designed our safety systems and our cultures around the opposite notion, that humans are incredible, humans are awesome, there would be completely different outcomes.

“We’d get people inspired, wanting to contribute and making huge successes happening for the organisation, but we don’t go there.”


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