Much has been made of the lack of predictive validity of American safety pioneer H W Heinrich’s triangle, which says that, for every accident resulting in a fatality or major disabling injury, there are approximately 300 unsafe incidents.
Or, more specifically, when companies have confused personal and process incidents and had their plant explode just after getting awards for a period of lost time injury-free operation.
Andrew Hopkins’ books Failure to Learn: The BP Texas City Refinery Disaster (2008) and Disastrous Decisions: The Human and Organisational Causes of the Gulf of Mexico Blowout (2012) are both highly recommended.
This review, however, is about a book less known to the safety world, titled Bounce: The Myth of talent and the power of practice, published in 2010
by British journalist and table tennis champion Matthew Syed. The book very explicitly addresses the topic of ‘the baby in danger of being thrown out with the above bathwater’, which is rock solid in the Heinrich principle and, indeed, one of life’s eternal truths.
With lots of famous examples, from Mozart to Federer, Bounce makes it clear that excellence in anything needs, first and foremost, graft.
South African golf player Gary Player joked that the harder he practised, the luckier he seemed to get and was in the gym pumping iron before his peers. Similarly, perhaps the most famous genius of them all, Einstein, suggested that ‘genius is 10 per cent inspiration and 90 per cent perspiration’.
All books on how to succeed in life cover this principle, from Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to what the king of positive psychology, American psychologist Martin Seligman, called ‘grit’.
Bounce: The myth of talent and the power of practice explores this truth in depth and is full of excellent and amusing examples. David Beckham’s record for ‘keepy-uppy’ after his first week’s practice? Just 10. Even the poster boy for the idea of the born genius, Mozart, wasn’t one. His father was a strict disciplinarian and one of the world’s leading music teachers. Yes, he was forced to be composing while in short trousers, but most of it was not good and he didn’t write anything genuinely excellent until he was in his early 20s. In fact, some musical experts consider him ‘a bit of a late developer, considering’.
In the world of safety, health and environment, the ‘graft’ principle isn’t just about getting behavioural basics like wearing PPE, holding the handrail and lifting safely right, but it also applies to health and wellbeing.
In short, the basic Heinrich’s principle that we should pro-actively strive to double the amount of times we do constructive things and halve the number of times we do destructive things is applicable to anything and everything.
We must, for example, seek to double supervisor-worker interactions that are positive and supportive, based on praise and coaching rather than criticism and the phrase ‘because I say so’. We must seek to double the number of times a mental health first aider, or anyone for that matter, asks simply ‘are you OK?’ to someone they’ve noticed really isn’t.
Similarly, in the world of process safety we should focus on halving the number of poor-quality shift handovers or halving the number of times that staff with critical roles find themselves fatigued. We can seek to double the number of tool box talks that are well structured with a large element of genuine dialogue so that workers set off informed and empowered.
Indeed, all organisations really should have ongoing, holistic and interrelated processes designed not just to encourage but to facilitate and nudge a range of bottom of the triangle behaviours [unsafe acts and conditions]that seldom lead directly to harm, but utterly underpin safety resilience and mental health.
There are no guarantees either way and some, by accident of birth, get to start from rather further around the track than others. However, on balance, that we broadly get the luck we deserve is just a law of nature and it’s compellingly detailed in Bounce.
It should be compulsory reading, not just for anyone working in the safety, health and environment world but for anyone let out of the house unaccompanied.
Tim Marsh is managing director at Anker & Marsh
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