Common sense means different things in different countries and cultures. Far better to consider public, industry and expert types of knowledge, writes Angela Gray CMIOSH, technical lead at IOSH.
The phrase ‘common sense’ has always been a problem for me. What seems outstandingly obvious to me will not be so obvious to others. This is because we have all built up our ‘sense’ under our own unique circumstances: our past experiences, our social and economic backgrounds, the skills we have and the knowledge we have developed over time.
I understand what the phrase is intended to represent, but in different countries, languages and cultures, it’s just not the same for everyone. I prefer the use of the word ‘knowledge’.
When determining liability after an OSH incident, ‘reasonable foreseeability’ is a legal term used by courts in many countries. It refers to whether a consequence or outcome from an activity or act could have been anticipated or predicted by an ordinary person of average intelligence. There are three tests of the degree of knowledge expected to be held by an individual, depending upon the circumstances. These are common knowledge, industry knowledge and expert knowledge.
Common knowledge (sometimes referred to as ‘public knowledge’)
You are expected to foresee what the average person in the street would have foreseen, as that information is common knowledge. For example, if the public would have known that working on a roof in high winds without anything to stop a fall was dangerous, then so should the organisation.
Industry knowledge (sometimes referred to as ‘corporate knowledge’)
If a safety issue is beyond public knowledge, an organisation is expected to have the same background knowledge as other companies working in the same industry. For example, if an organisation was using a chemical and didn’t realise how dangerous it was, but the rest of the industry had realised for years and had introduced control measures or replaced it with an alternative, the organisation wouldn’t be able to argue against reasonable foreseeability.
Expert knowledge (sometimes referred to as ‘specialist knowledge’)
Only experts in a particular field are expected to have expert knowledge. For example, a research chemist would quite reasonably be expected to understand all the different properties of the substances they were handling, even if some risks were peculiar to the substance in very specific circumstances, beyond normal use.
A key quality of an OSH professional is to remain curious and understand the reality of day-to-day operations and activities within their organisation, therefore increasing their knowledge. In this context, and in very simple terms, this means really understanding how everything works, looking at each activity (or part of an activity) and asking the questions why, how, when and what if. For example, what could happen if the equipment fails? What if the worker makes an error or takes a shortcut? What if the weather changes?
The OSH professional also needs to understand the industry or sector they work in and be aware of current practices, controls and ways of working to optimise their search for ‘foreseeable’ outcomes or consequences. And if you have expert knowledge, please share it!