The kind and caring people of Starbucks don’t want me to scald myself with their coffee. So they have printed a warning on the lids of their take-away cups. CAUTION CONTENTS HOT. Apart from insulting their customers, this message is not very effective. It does not provide people with any clues about what is appropriate behaviour, apart from perhaps waiting, or to take the first sip cautiously. The warning probably protects Starbucks more than their clients.
Traditional safety efforts rely heavily on separating people and danger. But warnings or prohibitions are not very helpful when the task is exactly the opposite: to engage with the ‘danger’. Be it a hot liquid or cancer surgery.
Safety should be about helping people and organisations to do their jobs successfully. Not stopping them, constraining them, or making the task more difficult. Safety should be about boosting the capacity of people and organisation to make their own informed decisions as to what is appropriate behaviour in a specific situation – to give them the ability to adapt successfully.
Recently I saw a temperature sensitive LED light water faucet. When the water is cold, the faucet turns blue. Red when hot. And green in between. Sure, three colours is a bit boxy, but the principle is there: provide people with cues about the state of the world they are interacting with, facilitate the understanding of what is currently happening, then successful adaptations are more likely.
Cancer surgery is difficult because the spread of a cancer is hard to determine. However, using fluorescent markers, surgeons can make more precise incisions, and avoid inadvertent injuries to unaffected nerves and tissues. In the video below (16 minutes long, but well worth a watch) Quyen Nguyen explains color-coded surgery.
Perhaps it is time to ask Starbucks, or any of the other major coffee chains, to invest in research for a cup/lid made in temperature sensitive material. Or maybe it already exists somewhere!?