Can you handle the truth?

file000817447890Safety today has arrived at a place where we can’t handle to truth, we are not interested in the science, nor are we informed by evidence. We have become religious zealots. Anyone that challenges the dogma, is subjected to hysteria and condemnation. We collect data that has been corrupted through performance incentives and for the most part we base of our actions and conclusions on emotion that is suffocated and cloaked in zero harm rhetoric.

When we look to safety public policy, it has been subjected to these same dogmas. Public policy and its incumbent investment is driven by emotion and herd mentality, rather than critical analysis. We need to challenge the dogma and the emotional claims, and return to critical thinking, with management based on evidence and open thinking . A current example of public policy in the USA is the debate on gun control arising from a series of mass killings. Whilst this is an important issue, are there other matters that have a greater impact on public safety, with lower political barriers?

Let’s take the example of child drowning’s in USA swimming pools. This data was reported in the book Freakanomics:

In a given year, there is one drowning of a child for every 11,000 residential pools in the United States. (In a country with 6 million pools, this means that roughly 550 children under the age of ten drown each year.) Meanwhile, there is 1 child killed by a gun for every 1 million-plus guns. (In a country with an estimated 200 million guns, this means that roughly 175 children under ten die each year from guns.) The likelihood of death by pool (1 in 11,000) versus death by gun (1 in 1 million-plus) isn’t even close: Molly is roughly 100 times more likely to die in a swimming accident at Imani’s house than in gunplay at Amy’s.

Freakanomics applies a radical concept, before you leap to a conclusion about the nature of a problem, analyse the data. In a recent podcast How to Think About Guns  Steven D. Levitt (the William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago) concluded that gun buy backs are completely ineffective as public policy to reduce gun related fatalities. There are an estimated 300,000,000 guns in the USA. The death rate from hand guns is 1 per 10,000 hand guns. Two-thirds of all gun-related deaths in the United States are suicides. In 2010, there were 19,392 firearm-related suicide deaths, and 11,078 firearm-related homicide deaths in the United States.[1] On this basis, gun buy back would need to recover in the order of 190,000,000 guns with a cost of about $10 billion.

As safety practitioner’s, we eulogise the importance of data and analysis. The problem however is that we don’t understand how to collect and analyse data. We collect data on failures under the pretext of not having any  failure as acceptable. We undertake analysis and investigation, where we start from the answer and work back to the question. I cannot count the times I have heard investigators state that they know the cause of an incident before the investigation is begun. We base our analysis on starting from the answer and working back from there to justify the cause.

Safety Practitioner’s should study the work of Hans Rosling. View his talk: Stats that Reshape the world. Hans has mastered the art of unencumbered inquiry to study the nature of a given problem. With this type of philosophy we would discover, rather than determine. Sidney Dekker challenges us to “look up and out” rather than down and in. Hans builds data tools that go up and out, tools that we could harness in an open minded enquiry.

If we used open research, analysed the nature of the problem, we may arrive at a very uncomfortable place where we discover that we have not understood the nature of the problem, and that our efforts in safety rules, procedures and mountains of documents are not justified by the evidence. It is time for we looked for the truth.


Are you Ready for a Swimming Lesson: Freakanomics

How to Think About Guns: Freakanomics

Stats that Reshape the world. Hans Rosling


  1. Ruben Lezama Reply

    I think your point of view is interesting, but I think you are comparing apples with trees, meanwhile drown childs are by accident the people killed by gun is not by accident, there is involved a criminal mind with a twisted pourpose, so it is not valid to make a comparision between these two facts.

  2. Andrew Townsend Reply

    Kelvin – At risk of appearing extremely cynical, the objective rigorous examination of data and regulators, politicians, H&S establishment are mutually exclusive concepts.

    I don’t know if Australia’s regulators commission research but if you want a laugh look up the UK’s Health and Safety Executive’s research reports on their website. They suffer from “what you look for is what you will find”. They have already made up their minds what they want the answer to be when they commission the research.

    The tragedy is that they kid themselves it is objective. Those who presume to act on behalf of the public to protect the public actually believe their own rhetoric.

    Do you have example(s) of recent research on occupational safety research commissioned by non UK regulators?


    1. John Culvenor Reply

      Hi Andrew, There is very little research done in Australia. So close you could call it none. A review of scientific journals would probably show this to be true – at least that is my hypothesis – but no one will do research on that either! Research in Australia is funded publicly by the Australian Research Council. It distributes close to one billion dollars per year ($811.3M to be precise). Occupational health and safety is not one of the Australian Research Council priority areas and never has been. Occupational health and safety has been seen as a contest between employers and employers. There has not been a view that there is anything to learn. Hence the focus has been on the contest rather than knowledge. This is the basic cause of the lack of knowledge and knowledge development in Australia. It is also a fundamental cause of the lack of sustainability (let alone growth) of learning institutions in the safety sciences whose seedlings emerged over recent decades but were not nourished.

      1. Andrew Townsend Reply

        Hi John – Thanks for that. No wonder that Kelvin used an example from outside Australia. The quick trite answers from someone who presumes to research safety research are that world wide….
        1. most H&S researchers go straight to a conclusion that matches the assumptions that they already have in their minds; they do not consider alternative explanations for their data,
        2. most H&S regulators don’t understand the concept of ‘cohort studies’ e.g. to compare construction with manufacturing is ridiculous. If they want to improve construction, they should study the same type of construction across a range of regions and countries,
        3. in doing that they should be looking at comparative locations and comparative time periods and trying to understand the differences
        4. but that involves having to acknowledge that they do not have all the answers [none of us have all the answers!]

        I believe Kelvin is right about the need for open mindedness and to have one’s assumptions tested by others. I can see what Kelvin was getting at when he compared guns v swmming pools. Politicians and the media will do what is necessary to attract votes and ratings. So maybe we have to add political explanations into the mix in the study of safety science? Headline grabbing as phenomenon that affects objectivity in safety might make a wonderful subject for study?

        What do you think?

        1. John Culvenor Reply

          Hi Andrew,

          Most researchers in Australia might think they way you describe if we had any! A research community in occupational health and safety with preconceived ideas would be a step up from no community.

          Yes, I think the shortcomings you describe about safety research are probably true.

          Guns v swimming pools is an interesting and fair comparison in my mind. Both are used legitimately for recreational pursuits. Both are involved with unwanted side effects from a societal point of view.

    2. John Culvenor Reply

      Hi Andrew, Here is an example of a policy-based document from Australia that seems to parallel your view of UK regulatory efforts: the “Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy 2012-2022”

      This document purports to be a beacon of inspiration. However, see if you can work this out:
      – on one hand it promotes design based interventions and sets out the priority issues as being all long-onset health-related disorders and diseases. Both these make sense to me.
      – but at the same time it says – and I paraphrase “by the way we want instant results in terms of claim reductions” – fatalities down by 20% in ten years, incidence rate down by 30%.

      The two objectives are incompatible.

      1. Andrew Townsend Reply

        John – Thank you for this. It looks remarkably familiar. The UK regulator and government were saying the same things in 2002 when they launched ‘Revitalising Health and Safety’! They are focussing on the immediate ‘proximal’ causes not the ‘distal’ ones (‘scuse the jargon).

        May I use you as a non academic sounding board? I am beginning to realise that the greatest background (distal) influence on construction accidents is not design but tendering based on price not quality together with fragmented organisation. But I must not go down the route of immediately leaping to conclusions. I need to consider all the possible explanations for the data first.

  3. mikebehm Reply

    Kelvin – interesting and thought provoking. Despite the data provided and my love of statistics, I’ll take my kids to the swimming pool every time before I’d take them to the gun range or have them ‘gunplay’.

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