Recently, I posted an image on LinkedIn that displayed the quote “When it comes to safety, common sense is the friend of compliance” and asked for people’s thoughts. Over the next few hours, I received a tirade of comments that were ‘passionate’ to say the least. Many a health and safety professional will get riled by the statement that workplace health and safety is just common sense. It’s an easy phrase to roll of the tongue and seems sensible enough, but when you think about it, it’s far from it. The problem is that common sense isn’t, in fact, common. If it were, we would see far fewer safety incidents and injuries in the workplace. Moreover, our common sense isn’t something we’re born with; it is actually something that we learn throughout our lives. Suggesting that workplace health and safety should be common sense, implies that it doesn’t require much thought at all.

What is Common sense?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines common sense as ‘sound and prudent judgement based on a simple perception of the situation or facts’. The very definition itself makes common sense appear to be both universal and straightforward. According to the definition, common sense isn’t based on specialised knowledge, rather in-built good judgement.

If common sense truly existed, then there would be no need for instruction or guidance. Just by following our common sense we would all intrinsically know how to keep ourselves safe in any given situation. If we relied on common sense, we would all work it out by ourselves, depending on our native knowledge. The question is, how can we make a sound judgement about health and safety risks without specialised knowledge? And, how do we acquire our common sense in the first place?

If common sense does exist, it has to be accumulated over time in the same way as other knowledge. We all have the ability to learn it, but we will acquire knowledge at different rates. So, what happens in the interim period, before we’ve acquired the necessary amount of knowledge to be able to apply our common sense to workplace health and safety?

How Relying on Common Sense Leads to Safety Issues

When we rely on common sense, we tend to simplify the work that is required to make a situation safe. We don’t consider each person’s level of experience and the way they might interpret a situation. By instructing someone to be sensible or careful, we are assuming that they will know what they need to do and, by doing so, are giving them a false sense of security.

The truth is that the human mind is a complex beast. Many things influence our behaviour and our ability to apply sense to a situation. If we believe in common sense, then we are suggesting that any person who sustains an injury lacks it.

What’s more, even if we have the right level of knowledge, we don’t always use our common sense. We all have times when we embark on a bit of nonsense; we can’t always be tuned in and on form. When it comes to the importance of safety, we need the right systems and procedures around us to protect us and others.

The Importance of Strong Safety Practices

While we can’t teach common sense, we can teach safety. Common sense is really the culmination of knowledge gained through life experience and education. To improve workplace safety, it is our responsibility to give the right education and create the right experiences. The only way we can do that is by implementing the necessary training, procedures and processes.

To achieve workplace safety, we need to help people gain knowledge and make sound decisions based on their training. Although we can’t teach common sense, we can help people make sensible choices. And safety training isn’t enough either. We need to make the importance of safety part of workplace culture, to keep it front of mind so that it has a chance of becoming an instinct that can be relied upon.

The aim of workplace health and safety is to give everyone the same level of knowledge so that they can make sound judgements and decisions regarding risks. And, while common sense can’t replace strong safety practices, it can, of course, be used in conjunction. After all, if we ensure everyone receives the right training and gains the same level of safety knowledge, everyone should have a bit more common sense to lean upon.

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