July 6, 2018

“OHS cannot be seen as just a box-ticking exercise”

The Evolution of Health and Safety
The most important thing to understand about health and safety (OHS) is that for most of human history, there was no such thing, according to clinical psychologist Nigel Latta.
“No one wore high visibility vests and hard hats when they went out mammoth hunting,” said Latta.
“There was no safety briefing, no first aid kit, and no one had a current first aid certificate. “You either killed the mammoth or it killed you. It was that simple.
“We are running stone-aged brains in digital age times, and that brings with it a few issues,” said Latta, who was speaking ahead of the Tasmanian Safety Symposium & Trade Show, which was be held on Tuesday 17 July 2018.
He said the brain is the most sophisticated thing in the known universe, but it evolved over much simpler millennia when fighting or flighting was all that was needed.
“Humans are now doing things our ancestors would have thought were witchcraft, and so the demands on our brains to process complex sensory information and make even more complex decisions about how to respond have increased exponentially,” said Latta.
One of the things brains are always trying to do is save energy, and he said the best way to do that is, think as little as possible.
“Thinking is expensive, it takes a lot of fuel, and so brains are always trying to get out of doing it,” said Latta.
“We don’t set out to be lazy thinkers, rather it’s the default position. This is why people get hurt at work.
“We become complacent, we make assumptions, and we pay less attention to things we encounter over and over, even if those things are extremely hazardous.”
Configuring Safety
However, Latta said there are a number of important ways to harness the powers of the brain to get safety messages across.
“The first and most important thing is to understand the limitations of the most important piece of PPE we will ever have… our brain,” he said.
“If rational thinking was all that was required, there would be no need for health and safety professionals.
“You could just write a good policy, everyone would follow it to the letter, and everything would be fine.”
So this means any OHS messaging, training, or policies need to work with human brains as they actually are, not as we wish they would be, and Latta said this means making OHS a meaningful and authentic part of people’s lives.
“OHS has to be tied to a bigger more meaningful connection in people’s brains, and not just box-ticking,” he said.
“OHS shouldn’t be just paperwork and lectures, it should be something that’s at the centre of people’s working lives.
“The single most important thing you do at work, any work, is making sure you and your workmates go home safe at the end of the day.”
Latta explained that it is vitally important for all OHS professionals to understand how the brain works, how we process information, and the drivers of behaviour.
“The more you understand about how the brain processes the information coming in through our senses, and the many cognitive biases which underlie all human decision making, the better you’ll be able to communicate with the people you’re trying to keep healthy and safe,” he said.
“If nothing else even understanding that the default position of the brain is to err towards complacency and assumption making helps to focus your efforts.
“Considered optimism is good (ie we’ve taken all the appropriate steps so everyone will be safe), whereas complacent optimism (I’ve done this a million times so it’s okay to cut a few corners) is bad.
“It’s human, but it’s bad.”
At its heart Latta said OHS rests on the quality of the leadership team, which means that it is important to build a culture where keeping each other safe and healthy is seen as being fundamentally important to the business.
“You have to build a culture where it’s not just ok to say something if you see something, it’s the norm,” he said. “You have to build a culture where the team can recognise when things are starting to go pear-shaped, and call a timeout to interrupt the momentum.
“You have to build a culture where it isn’t just the OSH professional who knows about the limitations of our brains, but everyone.
“If everyone knows how our brains sometimes steer us into bad decisions, then everyone is better able to interrupt that process and steer us into better ones.”

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