Mixing life lessons from the army and fire service with classic philosophy, IOSH Chartered Member Simon Cassin says we should think more deeply about what we want to achieve for our health and wellbeing.
Any IOSH members who have watched his webinars will know that listening to Simon Cassin is a fascinating experience. As the founder and director of Ouch Training Team, Simon specialises in the design and delivery of behaviour-based health and safety training, as well as mental health first aid and management programmes.
IOSH even chose to collaborate with Ouch to deliver its Managing Occupational Health and Wellbeing course. But Ouch’s approach is unlike anything you might have encountered before.
‘I believe that the modern world is not conducive to thinking,’ Simon says.
‘In the book Thinking, fast and slow, Daniel Kahneman wrote that 95% of our decisions are made using system one [fast and intuitive] and only 5% using system two [slow and reasoned]. From a health and safety context, if people are making decisions that can have a real impact on others, surely we should spend more time using system two than system one?
‘We don’t, but if we were to start thinking philosophically about things, it could deliver such great benefits.’
Letter to Santa
One example of this, says Simon, is with a basic risk assessment.
‘We list the hazards: who might be harmed, what control measures we have, what potential measures we could use, and then we score the risk assessment. But when it comes to reducing that risk, we don’t ask ourselves why the control measures aren’t likely to work,’ Simon says.
‘If you don’t look for the opportunity to disprove the effectiveness of your control measures, it’s like a letter to Santa – you may really want something, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that because you want it, you’ll get it. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. In this case, the unexamined risk assessment is not worth having.’
Simon says one particular issue that we’ve forgotten or chosen to ignore is human nature.
‘If I teach you that something is dangerous and show you how to deal with it, you’ll avoid the danger, correct? But we know that’s not true. Most people have an idea of how to lift things correctly, but many still lift and carry items unsafely.
‘At Ouch, we’re not in the training business, we’re in the facilitated learning business. Training is something I can do to you, but I can’t make you believe it. For knowledge to exist, you’ve got to believe that something is correct, you’ve got to have justification that it’s correct, and it must be correct. If you haven’t got those three things, it doesn’t become knowledge.’
Bitesize OSH philosophy
- What is wellbeing? If you don’t know what it means, how can you measure it?
- Do we really learn from our mistakes? We can, but often don’t.
- Does practice make perfect? Not necessarily, but practice does make permanent.
- Ask yourself, why might your control measures fail? Not, why will they work?
Product of experience
Simon is the first to admit there’s something a little unusual about a working-class Mancunian quoting Socrates and Kant while trying to promote a message of better health, safety and wellbeing. But his belief in the importance of philosophical concepts is borne out of experience.
Simon worked as a PE teacher in the army and then spent 15 years in the fire service. These roles helped him realise that understanding the basic nature of situations is crucial to best outcomes.
‘I was once asked to get the shooting team in good shape for a competition. The first question I needed to ask myself was: What does good look like? In OSH terms, that same question might be: What does wellbeing mean?’ Simon says.
‘You take where you want to be and where you are now and plan the best way to get from one to another. Afterwards, we looked at the outcome and if we did something that didn’t work very well, we had to have the mindset that we needed to change it.’
Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. The unexamined risk assessment is not worth having
What led to Simon’s philosophical focus and Ouch’s unique approach?
‘The eureka moment for me came in 2008 when I read an HSE report about how effective manual handling training was. The report’s conclusion was that manual handling training on its own, without any other measures, is essentially pointless. It changed the way I approached health, safety and wellbeing.’ One example of this outlook can be found in the training Ouch did with a water company.
‘When we asked what staff did, we kept hearing the words: “I’m just a…”, as in, “I’m just a water technician.” This tells me that they don’t recognise the value of their role,’ says Simon. ‘No matter how much the organisation tried to explain how much they valued their contribution, for some, an ingrained mindset was difficult to shift.
‘So, as part of the training, we looked at different occupations and asked, which of these occupations will contribute most to saving lives? We had examples such as soldiers, firefighters and water technicians. When it comes to who needs to get things right to stop the most people dying, the answer is water technicians. If they don’t give us clean water and process the waste, we’d be dying in massive numbers from typhoid and cholera.’
Simon says that the ability to recognise the value of a role rather than its perceived status is philosophical thinking. And if more people started thinking that way, OSH as a sector might get the respect he thinks it’s due.
‘Health and safety is such a noble profession but, as a society, we value somebody who runs in to the rescue more than somebody who creates an environment where a rescue isn’t needed.’