Our interest in past failures is our most likely safeguard against repeating them

Former editor, IOSH Magazine

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” wrote the philosopher George Santayana. And history is littered with instances of our failure to learn from example.

One of the major lessons that should have been absorbed from the Aberfan disaster 50 years ago (see p 17) had to be restated forcefully in Lord Cullen’s report on the Piper Alpha drilling rig explosion and fire which took 167 lives. That lesson was that when a regulator gets too close to the industry it polices there is a high risk that 
its regulation becomes slack.

But even when we do respond to critical incidents with strong controls at a country or company level, they can become eroded with time. There is a natural wearing away of the priority we give to a risk when it has not eventuated in decades. Many managers in our workplaces are too young to have felt the shock from the Bhopal, Flixborough or Seveso incidents.

Business will also lobby to soften what it believes is unnecessary regulation that binds its hands. In the 20-year run-up to the global financial crisis which started on Wall Street in 2008, the US authorities, urged on by the banks, removed many financial services regulations. One of these was the Glass Steagall Act. It required financial separation of the assets of speculative investment banks and commercial and domestic banks that handled mortgages, small business loans and current accounts. 

The unsecured gambles by investment banks in the 1990s and 2000s ended up bringing down the commercial arms of institutions such as Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch. America sneezed and the rest of the developed world caught a cold. 

Glass Steagall had been enacted in 1933 to ensure the circumstances leading to the 1929 Wall Street crash, which prompted the previous global recession, could not reoccur.

In the safety world, the obvious way to try to guard against repeating history is to keep reading it. Anyone looking for a shortcut should read the book Disasters – Learning the Lessons for a Safer World (bit.ly/2ej15kA) by former HM chief inspector of factories David Eves, which captures the lessons from almost 100 disasters, ranging from the sinking of the Titanic to the Chernobyl nuclear accident. 

There is also merit in studying history as it is made. Siemens’ director of environmental protection, health and safety, Graeme Collinson, tells us in this month’s leader interview (p 44) that he has made a habit of trying to glean lessons for his employers from major incidents, wherever they happen. 

But guarding against the natural complacency that comes with successful OSH management cannot depend just on research. One active technique is to view circumstances that are endotic (familiar) as exotic. Walking a shopfloor, office or transport yard as if you were a visiting OSH practitioner can produce a sense of defamiliarisation that may provide new insight into hazards there.

Another is to ask employees routinely whether the risk level in their work has changed.

If you remember the past and scrutinise the present, there is little more you can do.


Louis Wustemann is former editor, IOSH Magazine. He was previously editor of Health and Safety at Work magazine and Environment in Business. He has written, edited and consulted on health and safety, environmental and employment matters for more than 25 years.

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