Common Sense vs Work Place Safety – The Perspective Based Safety Culture


by Brian O. Owens, Risk Control Consultant, Lovitt & Touché

Far too often I hear people rely on what they call “Common Sense” to explain away misunderstandings and gaps in communication as they relate to workplace incidents.  It usually sounds something like “He/She should have known that – it’s common sense!”  Common to whom, you and others who experienced the same exposures and influences over a lifetime?  Common to a group of people who have constructed a fundamental understanding of a situation and the related circumstances as they are presented?  Sure, okay, I’ll buy that, but what does that do to guarantee that every other person involved equally understood what was communicated and what needs to happen to arrive at a safe mutually agreed upon final result?

I regularly hear the phrase “perception is reality” used.  In other words, what somebody believes to be the truth, whether it actually is or not, is what they will walk away believing to be true.  I agree, and regularly use this saying myself, with a slight variation – Without communication, and without clarification, perception is reality.  I believe that first giving someone the opportunity to analyze, clarify, and accept (or question) information based on their findings allows perception to land closer to reality.

I once investigated an incident that on the surface appeared to be a clear cut bypass of a safety guard violation.  The operator of a large industrial saw had gotten into an electrical panel, manipulated a faulty connection for the light curtain circuitry (safety control device) which had been shutting down the saw.  They did this in order to keep the saw, and by effect production, going.  “Common Sense” would suggest that this employee should have known better, especially seeing as they had exposed themselves to high voltage a mere few inches away, and had displayed extreme negligence for their personal safety and company safety standards, all for the sake of production.  As I was doing the investigation however, one glaring thing stuck out to me – how did the saw operator, who spoke broken English and was neither a certified electrician nor instrumentation professional, know specifically where to go to fix the problem? Not only did they know how to get into the cabinet, but also knew the specific set of wires to give attention to.  How?   When asked about this, the operator gave me a startling answer – “A maintenance guy showed me.”  When I cross interviewed the maintenance tech identified, he vehemently denied having done so.  The problem I was faced with was an interesting one; I believed both of them.

After some deep sleuthing I finally pieced together what had truly occurred.  The operator had been noticing the issue with the saw and had contacted the maintenance department to send someone over to check it out.  When the maintenance tech arrived, he did his troubleshooting procedure and discovered the problem wasn’t actually the saw, but the faulty wiring housing for the light curtain.  To demonstrate his discovery to the saw operator, he pointed out how when he jostled the wires to the light curtain around, it resolved the problem and made a comment along the lines of “Here’s your problem right here.  See what happens when I do this?  It fixes the problem.  I just need to fix this and we’ll be back in business.”    The maintenance tech then made notes to go to the warehouse to retrieve the necessary parts to fix the problem and told the operator to take a break.    The operator, who was under the impression the maintenance tech had just shown her how to self treat the problem, went back to her task as usual.  When the error reoccurred, she simply went to the applicable wire, moved it around until the problem corrected itself, and then went back to work.

While sure, there were a slew of things that broke down with this one (Including upset condition protocols, Lock Out Tag Out, and more), you can’t emphasize enough how much perception vs reality mattered due largely to lack of clear concise communication played into the end result.  When it was communicated to the operator that she was exposed to high voltage and a simple wrong move could have had the potential to kill her, her face went white and ran to the restroom, immediately physically ill.

Keep that in mind the next time you are eager to label something as being “common sense”.

Brian Owens, Risk Control Consultant with Lovitt & Touché, has over ten years of experience as a health & safety professional in several industries including mining, construction, pipeline, oil & gas, manufacturing and fabrication. His expertise lies in hazard and risk assessment, safety cultural development, behavior based safety, MSHA/OSHA compliance and EHS Management Systems (ISO, OHSAS). Brian is also skilled in the area of workplace safety auditing, safety procedure and policy development, supervisor development, employee training and safety incentive programs.

For more information about how your company can create a perspective-based safety culture, contact Brian Owens at or reach out to your Lovitt & Touché representative.