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Don’t Hurt Yourself

Phil La Duke of ERM explains why this nice sentiment to express concern doesn’t work as the flawed philosophy behind Behavior Based Safety, a wrong-headed and ironically dangerous safety system.

Posted: March 20, 2013


This nice sentiment to express concern doesn’t work as the flawed philosophy behind Behavior Based Safety, a wrong-headed and ironically dangerous safety system.

Perhaps the dumbest advice I’ve ever received was “don’t hurt yourself,” something we’ve all heard at least a hundred times throughout our lives and probably said ourselves almost as often. This phrase continues to be used in one form or another, though it’s a rare case where someone was actually saved from a horrible injury because someone told them, in the vaguest possible terms, to watch out.

“Don’t hurt yourself” is not in itself dangerous, but some safety professionals have institutionalized it into the flawed philosophy behind Behavior Based Safety (BBS), an equally wrong-headed and exponentially more dangerous safety system. Think this through with me.

“Don’t hurt yourself” directs the about-to-be-injured party to stop whatever they are doing in order to avoid injuring themselves. In other words, if left to their own designs, an accident is about to occur. The injury is clearly assumed to be within the control of the injured party, otherwise no cautionary warning would be exercised. The unspoken implication is that the speaker is smarter than the person being warned and most likely believes they are immune to getting hurt.

All of this sounds innocuous enough, but (while harmless) it’s seldom accurate. Injuries can come from a multitude of complex and interrelated causes, many of which originate far upstream from the injury itself: equipment wears out, structures collapse, strangers act in careless or negligent ways. Though few of these factors can actually be controlled, an innate belief still persists that somehow, at some basic level, the person injured is also responsible for getting themselves hurt.

“Don’t hurt yourself” also assumes that injuries result from cognitive behaviors and conscious decisions. This is seldom the case. Think about the times you were personally injured; how many of those accidents happened because you simply weren’t thinking or, more accurately, were thinking about something else?

A growing body of BBS research holds that mistakes are a basic function of the brain that our subconscious minds use to test the environment and the safety of adapting to that new environment. Testing enables us to both resist and invite change simultaneously.

As backward and contradictory as this concept might sound, some believe it triggers our innovation, our discovery of how to do a task better, our exposure to the wonderful serendipity life has to offer. Unfortunately, these mistakes sometimes lead to lethal or even deadly consequences.

But if mistakes are in fact an inevitable function of our brains, then merely telling people not to err is pointless and, in my opinion, fairly irritating, like telling someone to be taller. Assuming an individual is not mentally ill, injuries that happen as a result of a cognitive decision are not deliberate attempts to hurt oneself.

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