While it is a phrase familiar to many, for OSH professionals it is a fundamentally flawed concept. We explore why – and find out how to ensure evidence-based approaches are used
Just use common sense’: a phrase often used in health and safety, usually said with the best intentions but without thinking it through, according to Kevin McCloskey CMIOSH, consultant and owner of Just Health and Safety. ‘What is this magical thing health and safety professionals seem to be blind to recommending?’ he adds.
Common sense is a term ‘mainly reserved for those looking on with 20:20 vision after an accident who want to feel superior’, Kevin says. Or they are in the process of ‘setting someone up to fail (for example by not providing the right equipment to do a job), and usually said as a throwaway comment’. In other words, common sense cannot be ‘pinned down or relied upon as a strategy to control risk’.
Psychologists, philosophers and other academics have sought to define common sense. Dr Peter Ellerton, senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Queensland in Australia, says common sense is something that everyone should be able to understand, even if it has to be explained first. ‘Usually when we talk about something being common sense, we mean that it is intuitively obvious (or at least obvious once someone points it out), logically consistent, an appropriate view to hold or position to take and grounded in experience,’ he adds.
But it is a flawed concept. ‘Very few people lament their own lack of common sense, but notice a lack of it around them,’ Peter adds, explaining that we often confuse something being intuitively obvious for something being true. ‘There are a lot of reasons for this, including our background assumptions, experiences and overall world views. What seems blindingly obvious to one person can seem incomprehensible to another. This explains why we can all be champions of common sense but end up disagreeing on a wide variety of subjects.’
In addition, the way ‘common sense’ translates into different languages yields slightly different meanings. Carsten Busch, ‘safety mythologist’ and historian, explains that in English the phrase emphasises ‘common’, meaning behaviour perceived as rational within a large part of the population. In other languages, the phrase has a more nuanced meaning. ‘Expressions such as “gezond verstand” (Dutch) or “sunt fornuft” (Norwegian) translate rather into a “healthy sense” than “common sense”,’ he explains.
Psychologist Dr Jim Taylor says the idea that common sense is ‘sound judgement derived from experience rather than study is one of the most revered qualities’, but is ‘neither common nor sensible’.
‘The idea that if a belief is held by a large number of people it must be sound has been disproved time and time again,’ he says. The concept of common sense does not explain why people buy things they cannot afford, smoke cigarettes or eat junk food, Jim says, adding: ‘Perhaps the biggest problem with the common-sense argument is that it is invariably supported by anecdotal evidence.’
Folk psychology – the belief we can draw intuitive or common-sense conclusions about people’s behaviour, thoughts and feelings – has some accuracy but is often not correct. For example, most people believe no one would confess to a crime they didn’t commit unless they were tortured, but extensive empirical research has shown that false confessions are surprisingly common and occur for a variety of reasons (Chiang et al, 2015).
Common sense is less a guiding principle than an excuse for dismissing alternative interpretations
Psychologists have theorised why many of our intuitive beliefs about human behaviour are wrong. For example, widely shared beliefs endorsed by ‘experts’ that make intuitive sense are assumed to be true. Confirmation bias – focusing on finding ‘evidence’ that our beliefs are true and ignoring cases that don’t confirm them – compounds this (Chiang et al, 2015).
To apply an example from OSH: common sense might say that if there hasn’t been an incident with a piece of equipment for the past 10 years, the hazard is negligible. But in fact the likelihood of impact has diminished, not disappeared (Vecchio-Sadus, 2010).
Relying on a common-sense approach to health and safety may have an impact on worker wellbeing and equity. Carsten Busch asks how appropriate common-sense assumptions are in our globalised, hyper-connected world with multicultural workplaces. ‘Can you really assume that, for example, immigrant workers or hired workers from eastern Europe share the same underlying knowledge, attitudes and values with us? They won’t share the same language or know what common sense means. They will however understand the judgmental tone in your voice. I think that parading common sense is a sneaky way of putting your own world view above that of others. That makes it quite toxic for equity, doesn’t it?’
Kevin Jones says the ‘comfort of common sense’ reinforces the status quo of slow progress in health and safety improvement and substantial trade-offs in pursuit of corporate and individual wealth.
‘We seem to be in a position where workers are complaining about poor mental health at the same time as sacrificing their mental health for career progression and job stability,’ he says. ‘OSH relies on workers refusing unsafe work, but what happens when workers are willing to suffer? Workers should not be expected to suffer. That is why the OSH laws emphasise the employer’s primary duty of care.
‘What the laws do not require and could not enforce is the employers’ duty of care. We need to convince employers that the duty to care for workers is equal or stronger than the employers’ desire for wealth.’
Reinforcing power relationships
In the OSH profession, common sense has not been and is not a guiding principle, according to IOSH head of policy Ruth Wilkinson. ‘Historically, the phrase “common sense” has been either linked with reports or general comments such as “keeping people safe at work is common sense”,’ she says.
‘Common sense is referred to within OSH training on interpreting risk perception across the workforce and structure of an organisation,’ Ruth says. ‘This is part of OSH practitioners developing their understanding that common sense is not a suitable control for any hazard in the workplace.’
But common sense can reinforce the power relationship and culture of those who use the phrase, according to Kevin Jones, editor of SafetyAtWorkBlog. ‘It’s less a guiding principle or working practice than an excuse for dismissing alternative interpretations or for considering perspectives that do not support the dominant economic purpose of the business or employer,’ he says. ‘I have heard common sense being used by a senior OSH person to establish a rapport with some workers and managers who are suspicious of health and safety disruption. But this short-term achievement reinforces the ineffectiveness of formal risk assessment processes.’
As a behavioural and leadership coach, Kevin Rogers CMIOSH, of consultancy Rogers Safety, runs exercises for people to reflect on their personal perception of risk. ‘It frequently shows that people’s perceptions are so wide and vary based on their past experiences, their general attitude, their demeanour and their character,’ he says. ‘Purely relying on common sense would see you with lots of different outcomes.’ He sees different approaches in different sectors, too. For example, people working in the relatively newer, offshore wind sector use harnesses to climb vertical ladders and have fall arrest equipment, compared with people working on older oil and gas platforms who climb similar ladders without any fall arrest equipment. Both would believe their methods to be common sense.
‘I think it’s wrong to totally dismiss it when someone says, “We rely on common sense” because if they have competency and experience in a field, it’s more than likely – providing they haven’t become complacent and tuned out the risk – that their version of common sense in this instance will keep them in a good place,’ says Kevin. He also sees different attitudes to common sense in OSH across SMEs and big companies. ‘In some of the larger companies, you can get headstrong and egotistical people who want to introduce what they believe is right for no good reason other than they believe it to be right,’ he says. ‘In some smaller companies I’ve often found managers know their teams better and rely on them to know how to operate.’
If managers don’t know their teams or what their perception of risk is, and are assuming they are relying on their common sense, the repercussions could be very serious, Kevin adds. ‘Reliance on any one individual, regardless of their role, is dangerous.’ Relying on common sense would not, for example, provide a legal defence in the event of an accident.
Legislation: The case for simplification?
Common sense is a phrase beloved of politicians – see UK home secretary Suella Braverman’s call for a return to ‘common-sense policing’ (Home Office, 2022) – and is often used as an argument for deregulation in health and safety.
Common sense, common safety was the title of Lord Young’s 2010 review into ‘the operation of health and safety laws and the growth of the compensation culture’. When the government published two reports in response three years later, it released a statement titled, ‘Common sense restored to health and safety’ (Department of Work and Pensions, 2013). ‘A common-sense approach to simplifying legislation, or removing unnecessary bureaucracy to make compliance easier is a good approach,’ says Ruth Wilkinson.
She cites the example of changes to the UK’s RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations) in 2012 – requiring incidents resulting in incapacitation to be reported over seven days instead of over three days – being perceived in the main as beneficial (GB Health and Safety Executive, 2013).
However, she adds: ‘What we don’t want are the real risks being missed. Where common sense approaches to health and safety are applied, there is no guarantee suitable and sufficient controls for hazards will have been identified or implemented, and it’s fair to say they probably will not be sufficient. This includes suitable and appropriate training, measurement of competency or levels of supervision required.’
Wisdom vs common sense
In the OSH world, context and experience have great significance, Peter points out, citing the example of marine navigation and established boating protocols that are often ignored by novices in favour of a ‘common-sense’ approach. ‘This established knowledge is very hard-won and represents the cumulative experiences of generations of boaties,’ he says. ‘What we see in this example is the difference between common sense and wisdom. The former can be cheap, easy and accessible, while the latter takes time and hard work.’
However, he adds: ‘Just because “we’ve always done it this way” doesn’t mean it is the most sensible way to do things, particularly when times or circumstances change and the old ways are no longer the best ways. Habit, tradition and mental heuristics might be very useful to work quickly and productively, but they can get in the way when the conditions that formed them change.’
Moving beyond common sense
The problem with assuming a shared wisdom in OSH, Kevin McCloskey says, is that ‘crowds’ aren’t necessarily wise, consistent or interested in detail. ‘This is why we have a two-pronged legal system which can, over time, set carefully considered standards in order to minimise harm to the vast majority of workers, and provide compensation to those who are disadvantaged through poor working arrangements.
‘On the statutory law side, the duty to risk-assess places the responsibility where it should be – on those who are in charge. For employers who have “vicarious liability” for the actions of their employees it would unforgivable, indeed risky to the business, to try to rely on a populist catchphrase to manage their affairs.’
There is much OSH professionals can do to ensure evidence-based approaches are used, Carsten says. ‘Good OSH relies on transdisciplinary approaches so we need to develop within our discipline, and we also need other disciplines.’
Professionals shouldn’t be tempted to apply overly simple solutions that ignore essential elements of the systems they are working in, he explains. ‘Common sense is often invoked to simplify a complex world by reducing complex situations to the behaviour of a person. That is a normal reaction, but not a very useful one, and one that may have negative effects,’ he adds. ‘And ask critical questions. Often, we don’t need more answers but better questions, such as “Why did it make sense for that person?”’
Communication skills, persistence and openness to new ideas and changing one’s mind are also crucial personal skills when dealing with colleagues, Kevin explains. ‘Health and safety professionals are often in positions of giving advice, rather than owning the tasks where risk assessment and reduction is needed,’ he adds. ‘Each professional develops their own set of tools and techniques that can be brought to bear.’
Peter says that perhaps the best common-sense approach is to ‘realise that we may not know the best way to do something and to seek the advice of those who have been doing it for a while’. For colleagues working with health and safety professionals who have built up risk perception over time through the work they do and training they have undertaken, this is crucial.
As Jim Taylor concludes: ‘We need to jettison this notion of the sanctity of common sense and instead embrace “reasoned sense” – that is, sound judgement based on rigorous study of an issue.’
Top tips: How to think outside the common-sense box
- Review risk assessments and procedures, checking forreferences to common sense and replace with a definition of the competence and knowledge required, how this will be achieved and what level of supervision is required until the knowledge is demonstrated.
- Ensure that there are no assumptions of shared worker wisdom within the organisation and workforce.
- Support the development and delivery of appropriate OSH competency throughout the organisation.
- Ensure your individual competency is maintained via IOSH membership/Blueprint and the IOSH competency framework.
Ruth Wilkinson, head of health and safety (policy and operations), IOSH
BCcampus. (2015) Science and common sense. In: Price PC, Jhangiani R, Chiang ICA (eds). Research Methods in Psychology – 2nd Canadian Edition. (accessed 1 November 2022).
HSE. (2013) Research to explore the effect of post ‘common sense, common safety’ amendment to RIDDOR Regulation 3(2) on health and safety standards in Great Britain. (accessed 1 November 2022).
Home Office. (2022) Open letter to leaders of the police for England and Wales. (accessed 1 November 2022).
Vecchio-Sadus A. (2010) Common sense – how common is it and does it make sense?. Australian Institute of Health & Safety. (accessed 1 November 2022).