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Improving safety standards through the right type of education

By John Hill, CEO of Bubble (NI) Ltd.

“The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.” -  Malcolm Gladwell

I always think that the true measure of an organisation or, indeed a nation, is how it treats its members or citizens who have the lowest status – whether that status be educational, social or financial. If we do not affect the people to the grass roots, then we will never fully experience culture change within our organisation. The area of education that specifically interests me is that of workers, within companies, learning ‘on the job skills’ that will help them do their job better, act more safely both in their own interests and the interests of their co-workers,  contribute more positively to their company and find a work environment where they are valuable and valued.

In October, I had the opportunity to speak at a Health and Safety Symposium organised by BAE Systems, in Riyadh. Other speakers included representatives from IOSH, NEBOSH, Al Marai Corportaion, BAE Systems and the British Safety Council.

One of the speakers, Tony Lewis, the Chief Education Officer from the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) spoke with great passion on the topic of reflective learning –which is “the capacity to reflect on action so as to engage in a process of continuous learning", which, according to the originator of the term, is "one of the defining characteristics of professional practice”.

There is no reason why this practice cannot penetrate to the operatives in the ‘lower’ strata of any organisation.

There is a very true saying that it’s not the quality of the teaching or training that counts but the quality of the learning. The habitual way that we use to communicate, train or educate is to have someone who is an expert or an academic in a certain field, who then passes on their wisdom, insight and expertise to their students or trainees. The job of the student or trainee is to try and absorb as much as possible, and hopefully remember it. The trouble is, this method does not encourage people to think objectively about their job or subject matter, to examine it critically, and has a tendency to reproduce people who may know a lot of information but lack any ideas in how to apply it, and it tends to suppress innovative thinking.

It is amazing how many advanced, modern corporations and companies have all the policies and procedures in place, but when it comes to penetrating to the grass roots, the same mistakes keep being made; training that is done purely for compliance, or to gain certification, training that is poorly understood, or training and induction that is seen as obligatory and not for real benefit and advancement of the employee.

Leadership is all important – if the leader of an organisation does not have an interest in the personal safety and professional development of the least of the companies employees, it is unlikely that any real change will be achieved.

Just to set as a goal, ‘We are going to have a better safety record’ is not enough. Unless careful thought is given to how that is going to happen at a grassroots level, change will be difficult, if not impossible. I love the story related by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, ‘The Tipping Point’ about the reduction of crime rates on the New York Metro by the direct intervention of David Gunn, who was appointed as the Chief Exec in 1984, when crime was at its height. He decided to focus in on one key element, which he saw as being critical in implementing change – vandalism and graffiti on train carriages. Consistently, between 1984 and 1990, if a carriage had been vandalised or daubed with graffiti, it was immediately removed from service, repainted and repaired before being returned to service. Engineers and repairmen worked throughout the night to make sure that carriages were returned to service in perfect condition. Very soon the vandals and graffiti artists began to give up. Then he moved on to fare dodging - the non payment of fares. Within a few years, crime rates had been reduced to a fraction of previous levels – because direct effective action was taken at the point where it was needed.

If people can be taught to think carefully and reflectively about their job, and think how they can do it better, more effectively and more safely, it will begin to fundamentally change the culture of an organisation.

Bubble (NI) Ltd. is a Belfast based software development company, which specialises in developing solutions for industry

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