Nature vs. Nuture in Safety

| June 14, 2011

 Nature vs. Nurture is an on-going debate in many discussions of individual action.  Do we act the way we do because of our genes or our upbringing?  Are we who we are as the result of our inherent nature or the behavior of those around us?

This debate impacts occupational health and safety management systems as well.  We just don’t call it nature vs. nurture.  Instead we discuss safe workplaces (the inherent nature of the workplace) vs. behavior-based safety (the safe or unsafe activities of workers).

Although it is not yet clear how much of who we are is determined by heredity and how much by upbringing, it seems clear that both play a part.  As with the “nature vs. nurture” debate, occupational health and safety hazards are created by BOTH unsafe situations AND by unsafe acts.  You cannot focus solely on just one or the other in an OHSMS.

OHSAS 18001 makes this clear. 

By definition (see OHSAS 18001:2007 3.6), hazards include sources, situations AND acts with the potential for harm.  This includes unsafe conditions in the workplace.  This ALSO includes unsafe activities on the part of people.

Some organizations seem to forget this distinction when they develop their processes and procedures for hazard identification.  They focus almost exclusively on looking at sources of hazards – such as those associated with machinery, facilities, physical stressors and chemical agents.  The behavior of people, driven by the psychology of human behavior, is often ignored.

What is being missed?  Here are some examples –

  • Individuals will climb over or duck under conveyor belts in order to avoid the long walk around a process line.
  • Maintenance workers will not lockout a piece of equipment if they have to climb up and down five flights of stairs in order to do so.
  • Workers will not wear safety clothing that is too hot or safety glasses they can’t see out of.

This is one of the major distinctions between an OHSMS risk assessment and an EMS aspect evaluation. 

In many instances, the human element is less important when characterizing environmental impacts.  Most environmental impacts still exist even if there are no people present, but this is not the case with most safety hazards.  This is the reason why isolation can be an appropriate OH&S control measure.  The hazard still exists but not the OH&S risk.

© ENLAR® Compliance Services, Inc. (2011)

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Category: Risk Management

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