What is diversity of safety in practice?

In the recent blog post of this diversity of safety blog series, we explained why all great safety cultures require diversity in their point of view and observations. In this article, we’ll dig deeper into how diversity shows in practice.

“Harnessing the power of cognitive diversity is set to become a key source of competitive advantage and the surest route to reinvention and growth. You might even say that we are entering the age of diversity.”

Matthew Syed in his book Rebel Ideas

In his excellent book Rebel Ideas, Matthew Syed tells a story about a psychological experiment done by Richard E. Nisbett and Takahiko Masuda, two academics from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. The experiment was simple: two groups, one from the United States and one from Japan, looked at the same video clips from underwater scenes and simply described what they saw. What was remarkable was how much these two group descriptions and explanations differed. It was like they were talking about completely different videos. What the US people saw in the videos was fish, bellies and dots in comparison to what the Japanese described were streams, and watercolour nuances. The Americans projected their individualistic background and point of view directly to what they saw just as the Japanese projected their collective cultural factors and point of view to their views.

Even more astonishing was the next stage of the experiment. The scientists decided to change some objects (fish etc.) but kept some of them the same and changed the context a bit. The Americans immediately noticed the new objects but were blind to the contextual changes whereas the Japanese had the opposite reaction. They immediately found out the changes in context but struggled to see the changes in objects. How scientists describe this interesting phenomenon is that Americans and Japanese have different ‘frames of reference’. What may not be immediately obvious, but actually is, is that each frame of reference contains both valuable information but also blind spots that other frames of reference do not. No frame of reference is EVER complete but complementary. Thoughtful readers can immediately draw important conclusions like why we leaders should never suppress opinions or blame for systemic mistakes. In the end, this will only reject all the valuable frames of reference too.

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Why does this matter to safety management? Most of us have learned that for every accident, there are hundreds or even thousands of at-risk behaviours or circumstances. But what are those behaviours and circumstances and how do we as an organisation notice and record them? Depending on the background, situation, work day, the latest training, distractions and multiple other variables, some of us see PPE-related violations whereas someone notices at-risk tool usage. Those who have a background in fire safety and preparedness might notice quicker if exit routes are blocked and those with electrical engineering background may see electrical safety-related observations like working too close to wires. Too often we ask employees to report “anything and everything related to safety” without truly defining what they mean. Trust that your employees and workforce all know something about safety and do all you can to increase the adoption of reporting habits. The more people are reporting safety issues, the more frames of reference combined and the more improvements you are able to make to the overall safety management system. If you are accepting observation reporting rates anywhere below one per employee per month, you are most likely missing 50% to 90% of what could be reported.

It’s also good to remember that the types of different safety observations and protective measures for safety will evolve just as technologies and organisations evolve. What seems to be the trending safety observation today, may not be so tomorrow. Every correction we do to keep our staff safe will always create new potential safety problems. It’s never too late to look for more leading indicators towards better safety management.


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