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  • John Kingston

Investigate your words


“They might as well write the conclusions before investigating the accident,” the senior investigator despaired: “it’s really that bad”. Decades of safety practice have built up a store of ideas—clichés, really—that allow us to seemingly account for most things, but without creating breakthroughs to new levels of improvement. I’ve been wondering how we got here and what we can do about it. In Europe, starting in the 1970s, we raised our game: new laws; new ideas; a new belief that accidents and ill-health are preventable, not inevitable. But having raised our game, we seem to be stuck. If you’ll forgive the comparison, I remember hearing a psychiatrist explain how families struggle to support loved-ones who are suffering with mental illness. Sometimes, unwittingly, families act in ways that perpetuate the illness. There’s no malice, and no lack of kindness; just the muddling along that keeps life manageable. I wonder if our firms are like those families: muddling through to the next day while keeping-up appearances. The status quo is where we live; most challenging accidents and illnesses can be explained-away with a cliché here and a buzzword there. However, is preserving the status quo really our highest duty? As Ted Ferry used to say, if you put on the hat of the advocate, it will dominate your investigation. But, the ‘fact-finding’ hat and the ‘determining-cause’ hat, those never go out of fashion. It's about not fooling ourselves; because once we’ve fooled ourselves, it’s hard not to fool other people. Investigation is often about taking a fresh look in overly familiar contexts. So, start with the words you use. If you are used to hearing a word or seeing it print, regard it with suspicion: are the words controlling your meanings, or are your meanings in control of your words?

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