Zadie Smith and learning from our mistakes

Managing partner, Park Health and Safety Partnership

One of the best contemporary novelists writing in English, Zadie Smith, has a new book in the bestseller lists, called Swing Time, and the TV dramatisation of NW has brought her to the attention of a wider audience. 

Smith is also a regular prize winner, the latest a literary award she received in Berlin two days after Donald Trump was elected the next president of the US – and she reflected on this in a speech reproduced in the New York Review of Books. She lamented that these were the “darkest political times” she had known, as “President Trump rises in the West and a united Europe drops below the horizon”.

She went on to discuss how she had heard many people longing for the past, describing present failures and despairing of the future. But this sense of gloom and foreboding doesn’t seem strongly rooted in reality. 

It’s true that, except for the rich, there is a general decline in prosperity in the high-income economies. A loss of momentum in economic growth has caused working people’s incomes to stagnate or fall since the banking crisis, and the pain that this has generated certainly helped both Trump and the Brexit campaign to find a wider constituency. 

But surely these are not the “end times” beloved of latter-day millenarians. Most people in the West have material security and social support such as health services that were unimaginable 100 years ago – in the UK, the state pension only started in 1908, and the NHS is less than 70 years old.

Smith argued that the lessons from history include the fact that failures and setbacks can prompt the next level of improvements because, while we may never be perfect, we can make incremental progress.

 Setbacks can prompt the next level of improvements because, while we may never be perfect, we can make incremental progress

Arguing against revolutionary change, the target of small but consistent improvements sometimes involves compromises and working even with those we disagree with on many issues. In other words, just like a good football team, the occasional defeat is inevitable – even Arsenal’s “invincibles”, who uniquely avoided losing a Premier League game for a whole season in 2003-04, failed to win the FA Cup or Champions League that year. But the key is to learn from each defeat to improve the next performance.

Zadie Smith could have been talking directly to me and my fellow safety practitioners. We may wish for zero harm, because to do otherwise is to countenance accidents that can and do hurt people, but the reality is that nobody’s perfect. 

What matters is how we use every incident, near-miss and accident to learn how we can be safer and healthier tomorrow. Getting it wrong is terrible: it can cause injury or worse and result in a corporate and professional loss of confidence. But getting it wrong in the same way twice is unacceptable. 

Preparing for such eventualities, not only with emergency plans but with robust investigations, honest appraisals, learning and communication to improve performance, is a trait central to health and safety practice. Perhaps the wider public and certainly our political leaders need to consider how they can do this as well. 

That way we can turn even temporary setbacks into success.


Lawrence Waterman OBE CFIOSH is managing partner at the Park Health and Safety Partnership, and was formerly head of health and safety for the London Olympic Delivery Authority. He is past president of IOSH.

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