The Myths of Safety – React If You Will

Sometimes when you critically examine and expose well established myths you run the risk of having folks who believe the Myths attack “other” issues around the revealed “truths.” Some of it even gets “personal.” In the following article (and many other articles I’ve written) I understand this “danger” and I’m more than willing to take that risk. I’m hardly claiming absolute correctness and knowledge of these issues, but I do believe we should, as a profession, examine what and why we believe what we do.

Penn & Teller’s Showtime TV series is a perfect example. If you haven’t seen the series I highly recommend it. Not because I agree with everything they say but because what they do is challenge what they believe are myths and in some cases, lies. They encourage their viewers to think critically. The series is certainly not meant for the faint of heart. Their approach isn’t for everyone and it’s certainly an adult conversation with graphic language and at times has sexual content. This approach is used not to titillate but to be outrageous to get the viewer’s attention. I believe they accomplish these goals…get people’s attention and encourage viewers to critically think about what they believe is true. I’m not alone in enjoying their approach…they ran from 2003 – 2010. Check it out and keep your minds open; some of it is uncomfortable to watch.

Critical thinking is essential if we are to successfully help our fellow humans work and play safely. Our agreement is not. In fact we may learn more if we don’t agree. So let’s examine some of what I believe are the most prevalent and dangerous myths in the world of Safety Management. You may agree, you may disagree, and perhaps the real positive is that we’re at least examining what we believe to be true.

The Myths of Safety

1) Safety is #1

Some companies and professionals have adopted this “chant” as the ultimate statement of commitment to creating safety at their companies. The real issue is that your corporation is NOT created to be safe. The owners and shareholders have invested their money to make a profit, provide a service and/or to create a product. This is the reason for a corporation’s existence. How we accomplish this is indeed important. Doing it safely while being environmentally friendly, a good corporate citizen, ethical and legal is the real measurement of success. We need not number the priorities. They need to happen ALL AT THE SAME TIME! Safe Production is and should be the goal.

2) Counting Injuries is a Measurement of Safety

We’ve all done unsafe things and not felt the consequences of our unsafe behaviours. Standing on a chair, using a grinder without safety glasses, using a knife as a screwdriver are all examples of common unsafe behaviours we have done. That being the reality, unsafe/safe and injury/uninjured are NOT linked. AT ALL. If no injuries means we’ve been safe then we would have a great deal of evidence available to us to support that statement, right? Then consider how often you have done things unsafe and yet avoided injury. In this case, no injury was an outcome but how it was achieved was not by being safe.

3) Zero Harm/Injuries is a Commitment We MUST Believe In and Commit To

Thinking that something can’t be accomplished without believing in it is simply NOT true. The opposite is also NOT true. If this “faith” in something were the secret to accomplishment then believing in unicorns would have made them appear. Companies that have mistakenly linked Zero to some measure of safety are in error. No injuries can and does in many cases mean you were lucky. These types of goals also motivate some very wrong behaviours like hiding injuries through reclassification and accommodation.

4) Passing a Safety Audit Means You’ll Be Safe

There are many well intentioned standards and audits available in safety management. Many of them have impressive names with very long numbers attached to them. Some are international and have been created with “world-wide” input making them sound even more impressive. The reality is that most if not all are “opinion based” documents with little or no REAL evidence that they reveal any “secrets to success.” Groups of well-intentioned experts get together in a room and GUESS what they believe will work. Some of it is indeed highly intuitive and very much linked to good management practices. The problem comes with combining these “statements of intention” into something that if you PASS you will be on the road to success. As stated, there is little or no independent evidence that any of these work. In fact there is much evidence that they don’t. Passing an audit does nothing but state that you’ve “passed the audit.”

Most, if not all, of the popular audit instruments were created by well-meaning groups of people and are not based on any scientific evidence. Now, most of the questions in these audits are likely to be positives to your company outcomes but let's examine a typical example question.

"Does your company have a signed Health & Safety Policy?" Arguably a good way to communicate your company's intentions regarding the management of H&S. Problem is, the score. What is it worth? What are other questions in the audit worth toward your passing mark? Have they been measured in a test using control group companies which compare outcome measurements with inputs? If the scientific method has not been used to validate the audit... we have to admit that we are just guessing. Some very unsafe companies can and do pass audits. That being true, then this audit process is flawed. I'm not suggesting you abandon your audits. I am suggesting you read the results with a clear view of what the audit score may not be telling you about your safety management system.

5) All Incidents Are Preventable

What a beautiful idea…that ALL pain and suffering can be eliminated. Problem is that to prevent an incident, we would need absolute power over all things and absolute insight into the future consequences of our decisions. Absolutes in human experience don’t exist so the use of the word ALL makes the statement wrong without even considering what it takes to prevent incidents. See above for the other opposite end of the impossible scale (read ZERO)

6) Safety Can Be Done TO People

As in most human experiences “the few controlling the many” has a predictably poor outcome either in the short and/or long term. The idea that safety can be delivered like a pizza to passive workers who will just take our orders and comply is overly optimistic and frankly just the wildest of fantasies. So re-examine the Orientation DVD you’ve created and realize blasting passive workers with tons of information in a 20 minute DVD is not likely to have much of a long term impact on their safety. “Too much, Too Soon” comes to mind. This seems to be an efficient way to orient new employees. All too often we fail to really measure their retention and their resulting behaviours as an outcome of this “training.”

7) If We Make Non-Safety Illegal We’ll Reduce Unsafe Behaviour

At no time in human history have we eliminated undesired human behaviour through a “crime and punishment” approach. It hasn’t worked on our roadways with speeding and now the newest illegal act of driving distracted will hardly be eliminated by making rules and randomly (at best) pouncing on the violations. Human behaviour does work within a system of Activators, Behaviours and Consequences. This indeed is a complex area and has and is being studied continually. What we do know with some certainty is that random consequences are not very effective in changing behaviour. Being “caught” by some authority and then feeling the negative consequence of a fine can motivate some. It is in the full range of consequences that can provide very real motivators to support safe behaviours and help to take away the motivation to have unsafe behaviours.

The real knowledge about consequences is that positive consequences are much more influential and effective than negative. Focusing on the positive makes people WANT to get caught doing the safe behaviour. A focus on the negative enforcement accomplishes making people want to avoid being caught doing the prohibited. Is that really what we want…people avoiding punishment? A current example is how many “texters” are now trying to hide their “illegal” behaviour by texting while they drive with their phones in their lap out of sight of the enforcers. A win? Hardly. We’ve actually in all likelihood made it worse.

Well there you have it. Some of the most popular “myths” in safety management. You certainly don’t need to agree with what I’ve presented here, but you do need to examine (as we all do) what we believe and why we believe what we believe. As always, I’m always open to new ideas and views on these subjects… it’s what true professionals do.

Alan Quilley

Written by Alan Quilley

Alan D. Quilley is the author of The Emperor Has No Hard Hat – Achieving REAL Safety Results and Creating & Maintaining a Practical Based Safety Culture© . He is president of Safety Results Ltd., a Sherwood Park, Alberta OH&S consulting company ( You can reach him at

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