Does Traditional Safety Work or Have We Been Duped?

If you're looking for the one true blueprint for safety success, you may have a bad case of "paradigm paralysis."

Memory Test:

1) Have you ever confronted "bad safety" in application and found the safety performance there to be very good?

2) Have you ever had zero management support for safety and still observed good safety performance?

3) Have you ever experienced a great safety program and at the same time had poor safety performance?

In reality, we have all had these experiences and if you are like most of us, you've run across many of them. Did you ignore them? If you tried to explain them, how did you do it? "It's the Hawthorne Effect," we could conclude. "Give them a year and the real safety performance will emerge," we might prophesy. Or we could smoke them by saying, "Things will turn around in a month or so when the safety program becomes part of the culture."

It is a natural tendency. When we observe seemingly contradictory safety performance, we tend to either ignore the performance or be a little peachy by saying that they are flukes and given time, they will go the predictable way. This is our natural response to contradictory evidence within our traditional safety paradigms. In other words, if what we observe doesn't agree with what we believe to be predictable, we discount it as a fluke.

Scientific Research

In the 1950s, Thomas Kuhn talked about this natural reaction to different observations in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Coming out of the University of Chicago, Kuhn was trying to explain why many new ideas and theories were rejected by well-meaning researchers. He found that we establish mental paradigms, or patterns that define for us how to solve problems. We all have these learned and unquestioned paradigms. What Kahn discovered was that in scientific research, if experimental data agreed with the accepted paradigms, the data were immediately recognized and accepted as proof that the believed paradigms were correct. With confirming data, paradigms are very useful.

But, Kuhn found a startling negative effect of paradigms. When the data were in total conflict with one's paradigms, most researchers tried to explain away the data as nonvaluable or as experimental outliers. In extreme cases, Kuhn reported, researchers were mentally incapable of even seeing the conflicting data. For them and their paradigms, that data did not exist.

Kuhn observed that this "paradigm effect" had the potential to blind researchers to critically important data -- data that was evidence of new ideas and theories. Maybe this isn't a problem in 99.9 percent of research cases, but just imagine what would have happened if Newton had a strong paradigm that caused him to miss the "outlier" that lead him to mathematically prove gravity. Imagine that Einstein was so firm in his paradigms that he was blinded to the mathematical "outlier" that lead him to the "theory of relativity." How about if a researcher today was so paradigm-bound that she missed the "outlier" that could lead to a cure for cancer?

Most of us also have paradigms concerning safety. These traditional paradigms define how we solve safety problems, how we structure our safety programs and what things we place in our programs as foundational components. And when evidence or data doesn't seem to agree with those traditional paradigms, just like Kuhn's scientists, we ignore them or explain them away as being flukes or outliers. "Given time, the safety performance will turn," we confidently state. What we are really saying is, "Our paradigms are unquestionably true and because of that, we cannot accept what we are observing."

Seeing the Future

Having been "brought up" in the traditional safety world for almost 30 years, I share these same paradigms. But as Joel Barker warned business leaders in the late 1980s, watch out when your paradigm becomes THE paradigm because it leads to a complex error of certainty called "paradigm paralysis." This was the fatal flaw that blinded the Swiss watchmakers to seeing and accepting the digital watch that their own researchers had discovered. Seiko of Japan didn't have the same paradigms the Swiss had so they had no difficulty seeing the future.

Westinghouse had the same problem when their researchers invented flat screen technology. Westinghouse didn't appreciate the idea so they gave it away to the Japanese. Want evidence of the power of this idea. Go to any TV store and look on the shelf for the most expensive TV that everyone is buying.

Barker talked about paradigms as the primary barrier to us seeing the future. We are so busy solving today's problems using yesterday's paradigms, we don't see data or ideas that represent tomorrow's paradigm. They come by and we just don't get it. So, we either ignore them or try to explain them away, just like the Swiss and Westinghouse did.

Management Changes

Peter Drucker is, in the words of Warren Bennis, "the most important management thinker of our time." He has published 28 books over six decades that are translated into 20 languages, and that are hailed by highly respected sources like The Harvard Business Review as "landmarks of the managerial profession." Drucker has been on the leading edge of many business-changing concepts such as teams (1954) and the concept of the "knowledge worker" (1969). Peter Senge took this later concept and expanded on it in works like The Fifth Discipline, an epic business book. In his latest book, Management Challenges for the 21st Century, Drucker talks about the skills that successful management will need to develop now in order to be successful tomorrow. He provides six challenges for future leaders and warns, "Anyone who waits until these (challenges) become trendy, top-priority buzzwords will be left behind."

Confused yet? What does the concept of paradigms that was formed over 40 years ago in scientific research, the concept of "paradigm paralysis" that was formulated 15 years ago, and Drucker's future challenges have in common? More mportantly, what can I get from them to help me be more successful in my safety and healthy job?

The answers to these questions can be found in our understanding of the first of Drucker's six challenges. He called for those aspiring to be successful in the future to replace outdated management assumptions with new paradigms. He described three paradigm shifts: there is no right organization, different groups must be managed differently, and start with customer values rather than technology or end-use. The first two paradigm shifts are critical for us to clearly understand.

Business people currently assume that there exists the ideal structure. That belief had led businesses to continually search madly for it. First came functional structure, then decentralization, and most recently teamwork. The new paradigm turns this accepted assumption inside out. It says, "Quit trying to force-fit your structure, your organization and the way your organization works. They have to be custom-molded."

The second of Drucker's new paradigms dovetails with the first. The traditional business assumption says that there is one right way to manage people. In response, Drucker described another paradigm shift: Not only must different groups be managed differently, but the same group must be managed differently at different times. This "flex management" is dramatically different from our traditional, management versus labor, autocratic style. It is also different from any management style we are currently chasing as the ideal. This shift says, "Quit trying to find the ideal management style, listen to your work force and mold your management style to meet their needs and timing."

I lent a copy of Drucker's new book to an upper-level manager to read and absorb recently. To my surprise, he returned the book after only a couple of days. "Couldn't read it cause I didn't get it," he announced. Is this upper manager stupid? No, he began reading, just like Kuhn's scientist began looking at the research data, and what he saw didn't agree with his paradigms. He was locked in "paradigm paralysis." To him, the new paradigms couldn't possible represent the way of the future. So, the information was quickly ignored, the reading stopped and the book returned.

Our World

A company decided to stop doing what they had done for years in safety. They stopped keeping injury statistics. They stopped doing monthly safety inspections. They cut the safety staff down to a part of a person. They streamlined their accident investigation and reporting process to fit on a post card. They made regulatory compliance a subsection of the employee manual and filed away the cumbersome regulatory compliance programs and binders. They stopped doing all the industrial hygiene sampling and filed the mountain of data. They stopped the safety incentives program. They even disbanded the safety committee.

What Did They Do New?

STOP! Listen to yourself! What are you thinking right now! Many of you have already begun processing this information in the way Kuhn observed 40 years ago. If you aren't ignoring what was just described, you are saying, "Wow, I'll bet the injuries started pouring in." Or you might have formulated, "It won't be long before the injuries start picking up and the safe behavior goes in the toilet."

Our traditional safety paradigms say that if you want to have good safety performance, you have to have all the traditional safety components. It is natural and predictable to immediately "judge" what you see, read or hear through your paradigm filter. If it represents THE paradigm filter, only what agrees with it trickles through.

Let me ask a couple of paradigm-flexing questions. "What evidence do you have that only the traditional safety approach will work?" And, "What evidence do you have that each outlier you have seen doesn't represent a true exception to the paradigm rules and thereby, represents a significant shift in paradigms?"


It would be hard to argue any other position than that Kuhn is right. Paradigms exist in every walk of life and in each and every one of us. As Barker points out, paradigms are good. They are only bad when they blind us to new ideas and new ways of doing things. So, it would be hard to argue that Barker wasn't also right.

How about Drucker? Well, you might argue that the jury is still out because his predictions have yet to be realized. I would argue that the evidence is already in and in practice. Just look at the two new paradigms in this article. Anyone who is in touch with their own needs and feelings knows them to be true. I don't want boilerplate management or the management style of the week. Do you? I don't want to be stuck in a fixed structure and system in which I lose individuality and my ability to participate and excel. I want flexibility and moldability of structure and management. Drucker is already right.

What about Drucker's new paradigms as they might be applied to the structure and management of safety and health? Don't they fly in the face of our traditionally held safety paradigms that say successful programs are done just so? How do those of us who naturally hold to these unquestioned safety paradigms deal with this shift? Is what we've been taught true that the traditional safety way is the only way, or is it the best way, or just an option? Personally, from my experiences leading and navigating change efforts in business, everything is an option in today's world...including our traditional safety paradigms. "Yes Virginia, we were duped!"

Oh, by the way, that company that threw out the traditional practice of safety is doing just fine. As a matter of fact, their safety performance has improved over the two years since they threw it out. Will surprises never cease to exist!

F. David Pierce, CIH, CSP, is vice president of Leadership Solution Consultants, Sandy, Utah, and a contributing editor to Occupational Hazards. He can be reached at (801) 576-038 or by e-mail at [email protected]

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