Improving safety in life and in the workplace

Dealing with the human “wild card”

OPINION: The generally improving record of (the lower number of deaths) on our roads, was discussed in on of my previous articles. If a long view is taken – over decades – there is no doubt that there has been a marked improvement but it is also clear that a good proportion of this is due to safer roads (particularly median barriers) and improved vehicle safety. Better driver behaviour comes a distant third behind these two. And there are signs that the behaviour element is beginning to have a proportionately greater impact on the statistics than previously so that the overall stats have taken a short term turn for the worse.

I think the impact of human behaviour on outcomes is a general aspect of most human activities. Improvements in technology usually bring improved safety even if that is not the primary aim. In manufacturing, for example, there has been a huge impact from the introduction of automation and the use of robotics. However, in most cases, it is impossible to completely remove the factor of human behaviours and nowhere is that more apparent than on the roads and in some sports, particularly contact sports such as rugby and league. It is also true of some workplaces with forestry having a particularly bad record.

In regard to road safety, I was astounded to read recently that there had been a steady increase in the number of people caught driving without their seat belt fastened – despite the obvious safety benefits. Also, it is generally recognised that the law concerning mobile phone use in moving vehicles is ignored by a large number of drivers. The impact of this and other factors have led to a flattening of the the curve showing a general reduction in the rate of road deaths.  Flouting of the law is especially the preserve of young people (and not just teens) who often show poor judgment and a touching belief in their own immortality. However, teens at least have the “excuse” of having brains that are still under development but older drivers don’t have that excuse.

rugbyThe example of contact sports is especially vexing because here you have activities whose rules were written by adults but which encourage injuries, particularly due to a concussion. The worst example is the NFL in the USA. In rugby, for example, the tough defence strategies now being used are often countered by using a group of 3 or 4 players as a “battering ram” to make progress up the field, and the same for the next section of play and so on. Although there may not be head and neck contact involved, the general force of the contacts must be huge and it would be surprising if there was not collateral damage. I suspect those who run the game are well aware of that but are unable to find a solution which keeps the audience interested.  The changes that are being made to the rules are really just changes around the edges of the core problem.

At the heart of all of this is the issue of human behaviour and particularly how our brains are “wired” to think about and react to risk and conflict.  This applies to the human male especially. Research has indicated that we are by instinct (it is in our DNA) risk takers who think mainly about short term rather than longer term risks and benefits and have a very short planning horizon. Moreover, it has been suggested more recently that we take an exaggerated (optimistic) view of our ability to successfully take risks if the risk decision is one over which we have control.


It is pretty hard to fight these kinds of built in instincts. A certain amount can be achieved through education and this is where we can perhaps increase the effort, and there is nothing more sobering than having a near miss or getting caught out taking a risk with the result of limited consequences (that time).

Education has to continue to be basic to dealing with the behaviour issue but rather than just aiming this at individuals we need to try to change the culture so that certain kinds of behaviour become seen as unacceptable. I have raised that suggestion before. We then get the very powerful effect of peer opinion/pressure coming into play. The other obvious avenue is to use the law which of course we do already. However, we are traditionally too quick to legislate and often do not think through the consequences, both on other activities and on our ability to police the law.   If the law is generally seen as not well thought through people will flout the law, and if enforcement is ineffective the same result will occur.

The bottom line is that in planning anything we need to take account of the inevitabilities of human behaviour. The more we can take the factor of human behaviour out of the equation, or set limits, the less risky the solutions will be.


By Bas Walker

This is another of Bas Walker’s posts on GrownUps.  Please look out for his articles, containing his Beachside Ponderings.