That’ll never happen here. Sound familiar? We’ve all thought it and we’ve all seen it – the blind belief that nothing bad will happen. This common state is sometimes called a culture of denial.

To learn more about this phenomenon and how it applies to workplace safety, we spoke with Andrew Hopkins, emeritus professor of sociology at Australian National University in Canberra, and an independent oil and energy professional.

“Often when there’s a disaster or a crash there’s a sense that everybody knew this was going to happen,” said Hopkins. “After the event people come forward and say that this was an accident waiting to happen.” In other words, the people involved could see the dangers, but for some reason they failed to speak up. They chose instead to believe that nothing bad would happen.

According to Hopkins there are three things that need to happen before that will change:

1. Communication

“You have to ask why people didn’t speak up if an accident truly was waiting to happen,” said Hopkins. Then you have to put systems in place for communicating potential dangers; systems which must fulfill the following:

  • The risks should be reported digitally so that the information automatically goes to the relevant people.
  • The reporter has to believe that they will be taken seriously. Typically the reporter has to prove that there is a risk, but the onus should actually be placed on proving that there isn’t one.
  • The risk report should automatically keep moving up the chain of command until someone takes it seriously and acts.

As part of those systems, people need to feel celebrated for speaking up. When you report a risk you will almost certainly cause extra work for someone – even if it proves to be a false alarm. That takes courage, and when people are celebrated for stepping up, they’re more likely to be proactive about safety.

2. Root causes

It’s important to explore the organizational issues that might be creating safety risks – be they financial, operational or other. Some examples might be issues such as cutbacks in manpower, the way remuneration and bonus systems are set up, or poor implementation of safety programs.

Why oil and gas is the safety industry3. Eliminate groupthink

When people work in groups there is a huge tendency to be lulled into acquiescence. After all, if everyone else thinks it’s okay, then surely it is. Right?

“We need to get everyone OFF the same page,” said Hopkins. “The best way to do this is to appoint a devil’s advocate,” he continued, “someone whose job it is to disagree.” Because this can be a stressful and unpopular role, it works well to rotate it between team members.

If you’re thinking to yourself “I’m sure that doesn’t happen here”, you could be succumbing to that culture of denial. It might be time to take a long, hard look at the processes outlined above.

Stay tuned, in an upcoming post we’re going to hear what professor Hopkins has to say about the differences between personal safety, operational safety and major risk.

And for more insight into hot button safety topics, check out these previous posts in Enform‘s Safety matters blog series:

Part 1: fighting fatigue to save lives
Part 2: making sure their first day isn’t their last