Sartre & Safety Culture: The Choices You Make…

Contributor:  Jacqui Walker-Sutton
Posted:  02/28/2012  12:00:00 AM EST
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We were on our way to buy a washing machine.  Boring I know (but there was sale on). So anyway, we were in the car on our way to buy a washing machine. As I approached the T-junction in the village en route to the motorway, I noticed across the road and to my left, a youngish man sat on the grass, his bicycle laid askew nearby, holding on tightly to a very yappy Jack Russell terrier.

I looked right, then left and then right again in readiness to turn right.  But I did not move off. I had a choice: to turn right and ignore the unknown situation on my left, or turn left and check that all was well with the young man sat on the wet grass.

I did not know that something was wrong; it just looked and felt wrong. I chose to check.

Pulling up across the road from the young man and putting on my hazard lights, I rolled the window down and asked, ‘Are you alright?’ fully expecting his answer to be a retort of, ‘Yes’. He looked at me sadly and said, ‘No.  No, it’s not’. 

To give you some context, the road is not normally very busy, only the occasional bus, car or cyclist. A few houses overlooked the road. Today there was no one apart from me. It was windy and damp.  And, no one had stopped to check that the young man was okay, even though it transpired he had been sat there for nearly a half hour.

I made a conservative decision to leave the safety of my car and offer help.  Conservative decision-making is a forward-looking method to anticipate the potential effects of a decision.

Decision-making occurs in either a short-term or long-term context. Under some conditions people must make immediate decisions, while others have sufficient time for a more formal analysis.

Regardless of the time constraints, personal and equipment safety require conservative decisions. It is an attempt to understand the possible consequences or effects of various alternatives and choose the one that best meets the needs within known constraints.

So my first thoughts were along the lines of: ‘is it safe for me to approach an unknown man and a yappy dog?’ Could I get run over by a bus? (highly improbable), ‘What are the chances of being bitten by the yappy dog?’ (quite possible!)

I crossed the road and approached the man and dog. Suddenly, for a small village, there seemed to be an inordinate amount of people interested in the scene. The questions were evident in the faces of people as they passed slowly by. 

‘Is it an accident?’ ‘Is someone injured?’ A young boy appeared, bounding across the green, stopping short of the main road on my shouted instruction, offering a spare lead for the dog clearly recognising that it is probably safer to approach a woman than a man. Apparently, he and his Mum had been aware of the young man and dog for a while, but had chosen not to come over because they considered the situation would resolve itself. 

An elderly lady, who had been stood at the bus stop for some while, was looking attentively at the scene but not offering to come forward – perhaps she felt she could not add any benefit to the scene or she had an important meeting to go to.

Another gentleman was walking his dog, agitating Poppy (the name of the Jack Russell) greatly. He kept his head turned away from us and tugged his dog to scuttle past quickly.  He did not seem to want to get involved or perhaps he just had other priorities.  

The man introduced himself as Paul. He explained that the dog was not his. He had called the number on the dog tag prior to my arrival and left a couple of messages on voicemail but no one had called him back. We were struggling to think what else to do with the yappy dog, when the young boys mother came across to say she had a spare kennel where the dog could be kept until Poppy’s owner collected her.

Paul and I were very grateful for the offer and we were just tethering Poppy to the lead when a chap came sauntering along the road. He did not hail us or smile. Then he turned to us and speaking to Paul said, ‘Thanks for the message – I’ll take her now.’ 

We asked him if he knew the dog’s name and he replied, ‘Oh, Poppy.’ 

He casually unleashed Poppy from her new lead who, sensing freedom once more, promptly shot off like a rocket, completely undeterred by the road or other pedestrians. With a brisk, ‘Thanks’, he ambled along after Poppy, who was now chasing after another man with a dog. We could not help laughing at the ridiculous turn of events. 

The consequences for Poppy were that she had spent half an hour uncomfortably in the company of strangers. The consequences for the young man are of a more negatively reinforcing (see Aubrey Daniels ABC model) nature – he might not stop in future because of the hassle.

The consequences for me were positive: I felt I did my moral duty by stopping and I would repeat that action in future. The consequences for the young man and his mother were also positive – it cost them nothing to intervene and they did not have to do anything they did not want/choose to.

Would you see these behaviours in an oil rig or refinery, or a nuclear power station or a chemical plant

How many times has someone brought a small apparently inconsequential issue to you for you to say ‘Just leave it there and I’ll get back to you’ and you later find that actually, it is not a small or non-consequential issue.

Or have you asked ‘Can you just do this for me?’ where for the interlocutor to do so adds to their already busy day and impacts their ability to complete their priorities? 

When did you last walk past something that did not feel quite right? Or ignore FME in the expectation that someone else would pick it up and trash it appropriately? When did you last forget to deliver the safety message of the day, because there are important decisions to be made and talking about safety just takes time?

There is a video often used in safety culture training that talks about looking the other way which illustrates that the choices we make are influenced by our mindset, our approach to safety, our trust and respect for others. 

We must actively encourage people in the industry to report something that does not look or feel right. 

We must help people to use the corrective action programme to identify, report and fix conditions that are adverse to quality or safety. 

We expect that people will use the skill of their craft, training, experience (their own and industry experience) to do the right thing in the right way, first time, every time.

For all decisions, we should seek to clarify the goal, identify options, include appropriate analysis of those options in accomplishing the goal, develop a plan to implement the selected solutions, and identify ways to measure the effectiveness of the plan.

All good stuff of course, but we all need to remember that the choices we make are determined by the environment, our experience and, ultimately, our conscience. 

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Jacqui Walker-Sutton Contributor:   Jacqui Walker-Sutton


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