‘I came into safety by accident’
How did you get involved with psychology?
I was originally intending to study biology and possibly become a farmer like my father, but I really didn’t like all the rote learning that was involved in that study. I did a half subject experimental psychology at Cambridge and got very interested in it. So I did my final-year specialisation in experimental psychology. I did my student project with Richard Gregory. He was something of an inspiration. After Cambridge I went to work for the National Institute of Industrial Psychology (NIIP). They were doing lots of interesting work and were just about to start on a project which eventually resulted in a book called 2000 Accidents by Philip Powell and others. That was a field study of mostly first-aid injuries. Up to then I had never thought much about the causes of errors of whatever seriousness, so I truly came into safety by accident.
Was there much of a drive for research on safety in the late 1960s?
The electricity distribution boards commissioned research from us. They were starting from what was then a fairly common starting point of blaming the victim and looking for errors made in not following procedures properly. We broadened their vision. For example, we did a couple of reports on the design of switch gear, which was up until then an absolute disaster ergonomically, with no standardisation whatsoever in very simple things like ‘What must you do to turn the switch on or off or to earth? Was it up and down or side to side? Was up ‘on’ and down ‘off’, or vice versa?’ It was ergonomics in the raw. When we talked to switch designers they admitted they had given that no thought: ‘We design the inner working and where the actuator emerges from the case we stick on a handle.’
I recently read a review you co-authored in 1970, ‘A review of the industrial accident research literature’. I was struck by how detailed the work was and how much of it was still very relevant.
I agree; that formed the basis for all my later work. It was possible then to claim you had covered the whole English language field of safety in about 350 scientific papers, whereas now research has expanded so fast that nobody could conceivably claim to be familiar with the tens of thousands of existing published studies.
Do you think the safety research landscape moved on a bit during the 1970s?
I think it did. I was very much influenced by working at Aston, where for the first time in UK higher education there was a multidisciplinary group put together which interacted and was tasked to produce integrated training for government inspectors and safety professionals. We got the contract for the basic training of factory inspectors. The 1972 Robens Report on safety and health at work also had a huge impact. Everybody was trying very hard to interpret what the new approach of self-regulation that he was proposing meant in practice. I did my PhD based on extensive interviews with serving inspectors and their senior management to try to understand exactly what inspectors needed to know and do in order to adapt that concept for a diploma course.
A lot of work in the 70s and 80s was facilitated by the European Community through international workshops. Can you say something about those?
Through the 70s and 80s we saw the proliferation of research and teaching groups at universities, teaching graduate and postgraduate courses in several countries. Intelligent, thoughtful and creative people started researching safety and health topics and training high-quality professionals who went to jobs in industry. But since there was usually just one group or at most a handful per country, we clustered together for strength and understanding and set up international workshops and conferences. My experience was particularly with NeTWork (New Technology and Work), of which Bernhard Wilpert at the Technical University of Berlin was the godfather. That was very exciting, being shut away each year for three or four days with 20 people from different backgrounds and different countries with a safety-related theme to develop and write a book about. Over more than 25 years we covered topics like human error, accident investigation, changing regulations, communities of practice, safety in design, safety in medicine; and the group is still going strong.
There were also lots of societal developments going on outside looking at disasters and accidents – obviously Chernobyl with safety culture, but probably earlier ones, such as Kings Cross.
The Flixborough explosion in UK was probably the most influential in the 70s, due to the fact that it occurred at the same time as Robens study and report. People leapt on it as an example either for or against the Robens proposals, arguing whether those proposals could or could not have prevented Flixborough. Later Piper Alpha produced a shake-up in governance. What changed between the two was that we started looking across national boundaries and learning from other countries’ and other technologies’ accidents as well.
What were themes you concentrated on as a psychologist?
My central theme was in understanding causation and its attribution in relation to accidents. This meant moving from crude notions of accident proneness and blaming the victims – still a characteristic of media coverage of disasters – to causal frameworks linking to cognitive failures (my 1987 book with Ian Glendon, Individual Behaviour in the Control of Danger) and through that to underlying organisational failures, so that management prevention could be factored in. Risk analysts wanted this to modify their predictive risk calculations – still a highly controversial area of research and practice. As a trainer, I wanted them to structure training of safety professionals, linking technological, psychological and organisational factors in integrated frameworks. That work then posed the question of how to understand and change those limited attributions to open up new areas of preventive actions.
The work of two other behavioural scientists, James Reason and Barry Turner, was also influential during this time.
Jim certainly, with his books on human error and organisational accidents and his famous ‘Swiss cheese’ metaphor [in which the risk of a threat becoming a reality is mitigated by the differing layers and types of defences that are ‘layered’ behind each other]. The fascinating thing about Barry was that he was coming at things from a very different disciplinary background, sociology, while interacting with people coming mostly from an engineering science or psychology background. So his point of view was very new, but because he wrote so eloquently and his work was so readable, he had a big influence. You could say that he was there at the right moment to give that push to include sociological factors in the causation frameworks.
Can you say something about safety culture? It’s very much a focus for research and is popular amongst practitioners.
To me, safety culture is problematic in many of the same ways that ‘accident proneness’ was in the last century; in terms of its attributional consequences, the difficulties of defining it and of deciding what you should measure as the outcome of its presence or absence; either accidents or other intermediate measures of safety, like organisational actions to promote safety. It is remarkable how little good evidence there is of the predictive value of safety culture measurement using questionnaires. Research is accumulating, but we need a lot more. That is sadly the case for many things we do in the name of safety. One of my early papers had the title ‘Is safety training worthwhile?’. My conclusion at the time was that we really didn’t know, because so few people had evaluated it. They just assumed that you have to do safety training because it appears logically to be so obviously valuable, so much so that you don’t need to justify doing it. ‘Safety culture’ risks falling into the same category of ‘obviously useful’ and we may be spending lots of money in its pursuit with too few proven results of what is actually useful. Safety management and culture present plenty of opportunities of doing good research work because there is such a dearth of evaluative research linking management and organisational change to safety performance.
I know that you are very active and are still publishing, which is great. Is there something you are working on at the moment?
The main thing now is rounding off work on what a safety professional/adviser of various levels should know and do as a champion and promoter of safety and health. So I am working with the International Network of Safety and Health Practitioner Organizations (INSHPO).
That is quite a line running through your career isn’t it? Competence, knowledge and the international dimension…
The Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) claims that their qualifications are suitable for everyone around the globe, but might we need national variations because of industrial, but above all, political or regulatory differences? In the INSHPO project we collected information about required competencies for safety professionals across its membership, and there were a lot of significant differences. We have tried to leave space for those differences, while still identifying a common core. It is important to me to round off that particular aspect of my career. That’s why I also volunteered recently for the IOSH Professional Standards Committee. It is not an easy discussion, and I’ve publicly accused IOSH of being colonialist by pursuing recruitment of overseas professionals as IOSH members, rather than giving more attention to growing sister institutions in different countries to share the task of defining qualifications and training.
That is just one issue in the internationalisation of research and practice in safety and health. This has happened to all sciences and disciplines, so safety is not alone in this, but it has been a remarkable turnaround for safety and its study. When I started work, occupational safety was the poor relation of occupational hygiene and occupational medicine, with no university training, little research and fewer conferences. Almost 50 years has seen the positions reversed.
What excites you for the future?
A serious approach to ‘small and medium-sized enterprise’ safety and health would be enormously valuable, as regulation is driven too much by the views and problems of large, high-hazard companies. Tackling the dynamics of safety management would be important too: how to keep alive the organisational efforts which are made to improve prevention. When companies put their minds to it, they can achieve amazing changes. Some of Ron Westrum’s stories about turnarounds of bad organisations to good in short periods of time are inspiring, but the next question is how you involve and motivate people in the routine of monitoring and keeping those improvements going.
A last one of my fervent wishes for the future is more studies doing longitudinal research so that we can see the way in which a project, a management system, a design, or a system develops in relation to safety and health, the way things change and whether the changes we make do really have the results that we think they will and that we want them to have.
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