Column: Behavior Is Neutral

Get this in your head; tattoo it on the back of your hand to remind you. Behavior is neutral. This simple mantra will set your safety program free of the dysfunctions that kill your safety culture.

Tim Ludwig

Behavior is not right or wrong, good or bad. It just is. Approach behaviors with the dispassionate, objective view of a scientist.

Chemists consider their basic elements as neutral. They only describe the elements on their basic observable traits and understand them best when they interact in certain controlled situations. Elements themselves are neutral; they just are. A chemist doesn’t think of hydrogen as good, bad, right, or wrong. For them, hydrogen has one proton and no neutrons, has a standard atomic weight of 1.008, and is the most abundant element in the universe.

When elements interact, they have predictable outcomes. It is the outcomes of these interactions that are not neutral. When two hydrogen atoms combine with a carbon atom, you have a hydrocarbon, a molecule that naturally occurs here on earth, and things get more interesting.

The dispassionate and objective analyses of the interaction between hydrogen and carbon has led to some of the most amazing applications of our modern age.

Hydrocarbons in different petroleum configurations save lives, help machines fly, power industrial plants that make these medicines and flying machines along with lubricants, propellants, explosives, plastics; the list goes on. Put in context, the neutral hydrocarbon can be very good and right for many applications.

Take good note, however, that this same neutral hydrocarbon can kill and destroy given another context. Recent disasters involving hydrocarbons have focused needed attention on process safety include refinery explosions at the BP Texas City refinery, along with smaller refineries in Valero, Veolia, and Tesoro. Likewise, hydrocarbon spills in the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska, and the Niger Delta kill and disrupt communities of fauna (including humans) and flora. Our society is now debating the role of hydrocarbons in climate change. Put in context, the neutral hydrocarbon can be very bad and perhaps at times wrong for our world.

Neutral elements result in positive or negative outcomes because of the context they are put into.

I’ll Take a Risk

I’m going to take a risk to prove this point, one that may hurt my reputation with safety professionals. But I’m going to publish my scandalous confession in this article. I am admitting to you right now that the whole time I’ve been writing this article, I haven’t put on a hard hat. There, now you know; no hard hat ever touched my head the whole time.

Was I “wrong” to have forsaken a hard hat while writing? Would I have been “right” to do so? No. If I put on a hard hat as I sat down to write at my computer, it would not make me safer. It would just make me look ridiculous. This is because behavior is neutral, not right or wrong. Thus, putting on a hard hat is not “right;” it is an action that must be defined by the situation you’re in.

The situation in which behavior occurs makes all the difference. It is the situation that determines the outcome of behavior. Therefore, it is the situation that defines behavior as “safe” or “at-risk.”

Read the full column here.

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