Are safety practices scientific?

Published on Oct 8, 2015

by Dr. Duck

Don’t be too quick to take on the advice in this blog. Avoid nodding in agreement or giving it more credibility than it deserves. It is, like most blogs, the views and observations of one person tied into a convenient narrative.

You may feel more at ease agreeing or listening to my advice if I said it was based on research or established empirical findings.

Perhaps a four quadrant model or a series of circles with arrows pointing might also lend it some credibility and closure.



Mysteriously, the one thing that is likely to reduce your confidence is if I use the word ‘theory’.

Theories are often perceived as intangible, unreliable, and untrustworthy. The term is also used to try to discredit ideas. For example, some individuals attempt to trivialise the overwhelming evidence supporting evolution by saying ‘it’s just theory’.

It’s a suggestion that you have come up with an idea but don’t really have much in the way to back it up.

A scientific theory, in reality, is the result of extensive research based on many observations, experiments, and peer reviews. In science, theories help researchers consolidate studies, identify patterns and explain exceptions to predictions.

Theories are the result of research being tested, refined, and, yes, even discredited.


What scientific theories drive safety?

In safety, processes, procedures, models, frameworks, ‘evidence-based’ approaches, methods and risk matrices are preferred as they are perceived as being more practical. We often lose sight of which theories, if any, helped guide these approaches.

Observations and viewpoints from individuals—and heaven forbid blogs like this—with opinions are also valued.

At best this type of information can be useful but at worst it signals we understand exactly why a problem occurs and how to fix it.

To illustrate, let’s take the well-known James Reason’s error model. It can be used to categorise errors and breaches to rules. For example, employees often circumvent procedures to maintain workplace productivity—a violation for organisational gain.

One reason we fail to prevent future such issues is that we don’t often land an explanation as to why the behaviour occurred. It always seems to boil down to a generic explanation like ‘there is culture of rule-breaking’ or that the process and system was not followed.

We rarely stop to contemplate whether the practices we’ve put in place should have worked in the first place.


Applying theory to safety

What if we applied an approach that is based on a contemporary theory supported by recent evidence and application?

For example, regulatory focus theory explains that the person who broke the rules to increase productivity was adopting a ‘promotion focus’, which means they were motivated by achievements, accomplishments and other rewarding outcomes.

This theory explains that we all adopt a promotion focus from time to time but some individuals are more prone to doing so. Some individuals are more disposed to adopting a prevention focus, which is a sensitivity to warnings and reprimands.

In contrast, promotion-focused individuals are not sensitive to these warnings and reprimands.

They are also superior at processing patterns not details. So, they tend to have a ‘big picture’ mindset, perhaps focusing on the broader workplace’s success rather than ensuring they comply with all the details.

They will also do their best work in environments that promote autonomy, rather than those that dictate compliance.


The benefits of a theory that explains behaviour

Immediately, we can see that a deterrence model, such as issuing corrective actions, is unlikely to shift the approach of this promotion-focused individual. Even worse, reprimands could simply demotivate the employee, reduce their creativity and make them focus on simple linear trends and patterns.

As such, their situation awareness is likely to suffer. Their mindfulness of their surroundings is impaired. Their resilience and attention is also undermined.

In short, awareness of regulatory focus theory allows us to tap into an extensive literature of research that can help us explain behaviour and, therefore, address problems more appropriately.

Such theories can help explain why deterrence models can fail to produce behavioural changes. Without the theory, we may just assume that greater rigour, investment and enforcement is needed to apply the model.


The downside of theory

There are some areas of caution, however. Many theories are based on norms and beliefs about how the world operates with researchers confirming what they already believe to be true—the confirmation bias. As such, the theory can be a formal way of validating the way we want the world to work not how it actually works.

Some researchers have attempted to address this shortfall by intentionally examining non-intuitive research findings. This forces theories to address exceptions to our predictions and ensures we don’t build our knowledge on pre-conceived ideas and assumptions but, rather, scientific findings that may be counterintuitive.

Theories have also been criticised on the ground that they provide a narrative fallacy, where we are more likely to be convinced by a compelling story rather than look objectively at the evidence. Just like this blog.

by Dr. Duck

My name is Nicholas Duck. I am a Doctor of Psychology with an interest in psychology in the workplace, film and television, the media, and the fields of emotion, unconscious, and motivation psychology. You can contact me at

I am founder and principal consultant at Opposite, a consultancy that takes these applied psychological findings and helps workplaces improve.

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