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The uncommon truth about common sense

I’d like to explore this strange beast some folks believe is the secret to safety: the all-too-rare common sense.

Some universal truths

Humans don’t know what they don’t know. Seems simple enough, doesn’t it? We only know what we know, so how do we learn things? No matter how much we want it to be true, humans do not have the ability to “just know” about anything, including safety.

For example, there is no gene in human DNA that makes it natural to know that ladders need to be tied off to make sure they don’t slip. The common sense 4:1 ladder angle ratio is not somehow imprinted in our human DNA.

As a young man, my father — a machinist by trade — taught me about carpentry. Dad is an excellent hobby carpenter and, over his lifetime, has built many things from furniture to garages. His instructions included how to safely use the power tools in his garage, including a table saw and a radial arm saw. I learned how to safely use these devices through his instructions and my hands on practice. I am the hobby carpenter I am today mainly because of my father’s mentoring.

Not long ago, my eldest son called to ask if he could drop over and use my table saw. Without hesitation I told him that he could. While I waited for his arrival I went out to my attached garage and started to position the saw so that there was room to cut full sheets of plywood. I started to wonder how my son gained the knowledge needed to use a table saw. He certainly hadn’t shown any interest in using one as a kid, and now that he was a man working in the fitness industry, there wasn’t any reason for me to believe he would know very much about this particular kind of power tool.

When he arrived, as I suspected, he told me that he had never used a table saw before. He had never taken a course, or even paid much attention to all of those renovation shows on TV. It was crystal clear that common sense about table saws didn’t exist — and frankly, why would it?

If I had let my son use the table saw assuming he just knew how to use it because of course “everyone knows about table saws,” it could have had disastrous results. I helped my son cut his sheets of plywood using some of the training techniques my father had used on me. I know with some confidence that when my son one day teaches his son about table saws that there won’t be any assumptions of common knowledge about these potentially lethal machines.

It’s impossible to know what another human knows without communication. I meet a lot of people in my travels and there is no possible way that I can know how extensive their knowledge about a subject is, without engaging them in a conversation.

The life experiences and formal education make every one of us uniquely different. This is a very good thing. Imagine if we all knew exactly the same things and had perfect replicas of each other’s life experience. After-dinner conversations would be pretty boring now wouldn’t they?

“Did you see the new superhero movie?”

“Yes I did, as did you…in fact everyone we know has seen it!”

“Did you like it? I did!”

“Of course I did…everyone liked it; we all have the same experience!”

Obviously this is a silly example, but no sillier than the concept of common sense. It just doesn’t exist.

When I hear those frustrated individuals use the term common sense,  there are a few responses I use to try to get them to reflect a bit:

“Common sense is a myth propagated by those people who don’t remember where and from whom they learned what they know.”

“Having common sense is the art of knowing something that someone else believes you should know with or without the opportunity for you to actually know it.”

“People who believe in common sense can’t, by definition, have any because, logically, that would make anyone believe that everyone knows everything.”

“Only someone without any common sense would believe there is such thing as common sense.”

Finally, some common sense!

You don’t have to answer these questions for me, but answer them for yourself because I, for one, already know the answer.

Have you ever:

•    Used the wrong tool for a job (knife as a screwdriver, wrench as a hammer)?

•    Stood on a chair to get something?

•    Forgotten to wear a piece of safety equipment when you should have worn it?

•    Driven your vehicle while you were distracted or tired?

•    Forgotten to tell someone you were working with a critical piece of information?

•    Driven faster than the road conditions/speed limit?

•    Used a tool for the first time without reading the directions?

•    Paid interest of over 24 per cent on a credit card?

I could go on and on. These are all common sense things to avoid aren’t they? Smart people wouldn’t do ANY of these things. Unfortunately, very smart people do most, if not all, of these things. Usually, people do these things for no greater reason than to save some time or to be more comfortable. Sometimes the pull to take risks we don’t have to is overwhelming. We need to help each other resist the urge to take these all-too-common risks.

Let us not rely on something that doesn’t exist. In a “practical based safety culture” we know what our people know and do because we’ve engaged them in the process of creating safety. Training and mentoring are based on evidence — not some belief that our employees must know something because, after all, it’s just common sense, isn’t it?

Keep smiling! It’s a common way to stay happy.

Alan D. Quilley, CRSP

Alan D. Quilley is the author of “The Emperor Has No Hard Hat — Achieving REAL Safety Results” and the President of Safety Results Ltd. a Sherwood Park Alberta OH&S Consulting Company. Visit www.safetyresults.wordpress.com for more information.
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