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The Common Sense Safety Conundrum

The Common Sense Complaint

If only I had a dollar for every time someone has complained about the loss of common sense when talking about safety in general, and more particularly about safety behaviour.  You know how it goes “Common sense… ha, it doesn’t exist anymore”, or “There’s no such thing as common sense nowadays”, or maybe it is more like “Back in my day we got by on common sense, not like that today though”.

It’s talked about like common sense is some magical thing that somehow ‘we’ (whoever that is) used to have, but have for some reason lost, despite it apparently being incredibly useful to our survival… Funny, but that doesn’t seem to make much sense does it?  Also funny is how most higher risk industries are safer, even with the loss of common sense…

The Common Sense Misconception

So let’s look at the specifics of ‘common sense’ to see if it is actually something we can ‘have’ (after all, we have to be able to ‘have it’, to be able to ‘lose it’ right?).  If we break down the term into its two words the misconception becomes clear.

For safety to be common in the first place, it has to be common to whatever and whoever we are referring to.  It has to apply in everything, and more importantly, in everyone, in the same way.  When talking about sense, I think the best way of looking at it is to discuss the idea of ‘making sense’, or sense making, and in this case it is generally in relation to the immediate world around us.

The Common Sense Impossibility

So to have ‘common sense’, everyone would have to make sense of the world in exactly the same (common) way.  I’m pretty confident that that is not possible.  No two people will make sense of the same thing the same way.  It just doesn’t happen. Even twins will have a minor difference in the way they look at the world, let alone a group of workers thrown together with different educations, experiences and beliefs.

Common sense is essentially impossible, unless we do something to create it.

The Common Sense Insult

I would also like to add that apart from being wrong, I find comments like those mentioned above to be a negative, short sighted, unconstructive and insulting.  They also indicate the person making them has no understanding of how people tick.

I mean, where is the value or constructive element in statements like that, particularly in relation to health and safety?  How does it make things safer to nominate a lack of common sense as a causal factor to an incident?

To me it seems that much of the time it is just people complaining about the way things already are, rather than focusing on how things could be.  Some might say that defies common sense…

The Common Sense Self Deception

What can be interesting then is to consider what people might really mean when they are complaining about the loss of common sense in safety.  That is, what are the thoughts that prompt people to say these things?

Maybe they mean:

  • I don’t understand why that person did that; or
  • I can’t believe they didn’t know that. Doesn’t everyone know that?; or
  • I wish people were more like me.

You see, in general, we see the world the way we are, not the way it is.  We have a ‘me’ filter that clouds everything we see and hear.  So when people do something a little different from us, or things we don’t understand, it is easier to assume the issue lies with them, rather than questioning our own behaviour or motivation.  It is easier to find fault with others, than challenge ourselves, and ‘common sense’ can be the easy scape goat.  It’s kind of harmless to say people don’t have common sense, and it doesn’t get challenged by others, and of course is completely useless and meaningless.

Creating Common Sense

So what are we to do instead?  Well, what if we acknowledged that it is completely normal and expected to not have common sense?  That is, to not have a completely common way of making sense of safety throughout a working group.

What if instead we decided to create as much common sense as possible by genuinely engaging with people, finding out what they already know, and then working on the gaps?

This isn’t complex.  It’s stopping, engaging and communicating.  But it does take a little time, and it’s new for some, so that can be a little hard at first.  But it is worth it.  How often do we hear- “I thought everyone knew what was going on” after something goes wrong?  Maybe now we will hear- “Let’s have a chat about what we are about to do so we can create some common sense”.


Safety Dave Whitefield

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AMSJ April 2022