“New and Improved” or Just Good Marketing?

I’m troubled by what seems like an accelerating trend in safety, and that is people touting the next great thing. Don’t misunderstand…I believe in constantly looking for ways to improve. Technology is a great example. There are technological advances that have been game changers in safety. Speed limiters and adaptive cruise control are two prime examples.  But when it comes to the human performance component of safety, I’m troubled by some of the “advances”: the “latest and greatest” approaches being peddled. In particular, I’m bothered by those that use behavioral approaches as their strawman. The Grammarly Blog defines Strawman as follows: A straw man argument…is the logical fallacy of distorting an opposing position into an extreme version of itself and then arguing against that extreme version. In creating a straw man argument, the arguer strips the opposing point of view of any nuance and often misrepresents it in a negative light.

In safety, the strawman arguments either claim BBS is passe or worse, that BBS is about blaming the worker. BBS done properly is never about blaming the worker. It is about everyone working together to create the conditions for safe work—leaders and workers. It is frustrating as a behavioral scientist to hear people misrepresent behavioral approaches. I understand there are poorly designed and/or poorly executed BBS processes out there, but we don’t say pre-task risk assessments are a bad idea just because some people don’t use them properly.1 It is particularly infuriating when such criticisms come from consultants who are selling a different approach. I’m reminded of a certain celebrity doctor who was called to congress to testify about diet scams. This doctor repeatedly touted various “miracle” pills and substances on his show claiming they were the key to weight loss. Under oath in front of congress, he admitted there are no miracle diets or pills and that weight loss comes down to diet and exercise. Why would a medical doctor say something he knows isn’t true? I can’t say for certain, but it usually comes down to money.

You can’t make money by telling people that they need to eat differently and exercise. Diet and exercise are old news. We like things that are “new and improved.”  Diet and exercise are also hard work. Behavior change always is, and it’s no different in safety. There is no magic pill that will ensure all your supervisors and managers do all the things they need to do to maintain a safe workplace. There is no magic pill that will ensure your frontline employees look for and report hazards, follow procedures, or intervene to help peers. While there is no magic pill, there is a science of behavior to guide strategies for improvement. Yes, there are advances in the science, but most of what I hear in the safety world doesn’t represent significant scientific advancements. It sounds more like good marketing designed to get organizations to buy consulting services.

Weight loss is governed by scientific principles. So is behavior change in safety. If a strategy works, it works because it is consistent with behavioral science. Just like if a weight loss strategy works, it works because it is consistent with physical sciences. My advice to readers is buyer beware. Some of the things I’m seeing advertised to improve safety look a bit like magic pills that, when used with diet and exercise, will lead to weight loss.

1 For more on this see Is HOP a New Approach to Safety?

Posted by Judy Agnew, Ph.D.

As senior vice president of safety solutions, Judy spends her time helping clients create sustainable safety cultures. She also helps clients with strategy execution beyond safety, and general management and leadership improvement across cultural and generational differences.