Isn’t safety just common sense?

The term common sense is often used in safety circles as a mitigation or control after an incident has occurred. Many times I’ve heard there is “no substitute for common sense” or “if only people used their common sense”. The problem is common sense is not that common or as my 8 year old daughter once said “daddy, common sense is not flower that grows in everyone’s garden!”.

Let’s look at this a bit deeper. A broad definition for common sense is a basic ability to perceive, understand and judge things, which is shared by (“common to”) nearly all people, and can be reasonably expected of nearly all people.

I summarise it to “perceptions, understanding and judgement broadly known by many”. “Common” relating to the many and “sense” relating to perceptions, understanding and judgements.

Now the senses, perception, understanding and judgement come from our thinking. They are typically formed from experiences that are very personal. Here is the first point of divergence from “Common”.

The second point is linked to the thinking system (System 1 and 2). As we are in system 1 for most of the day, most incidents occur when we are thinking is System 1. The decision we make are fast, intuitive and associative. However when investigating incidents we tend to be in System 2 (slow deliberate rational thinking). System 2 thinking does produce very different outcomes then the fast system 1. Another opportunity for divergence.

The combination of these two diverging factors is the main reason why decisions that people make don’t seem very sensible to us. They have two very distinct points of divergence.

Actually finding common sense can be quite difficult given the range of personal and different experiences that make up those perceptions, understandings and judgements. It is little wonder its not that common.

So the next time you look for common sense don’t be surprised if it is not present but more importantly don’t assume common sense is going to keep people safe!

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