Common Sense – How common is it and does it make sense?

Tuesday, 31 August, 2010 - 10:00
Industry news

By Dr Angelica Vecchio-Sadus (CFSIA) | HSE Leader, CSIRO

I often hear the phrase ‘common sense’ used in conversation. Viewers of the TV series ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’ may remember that one of the judges would frequently turn to the court and say: “Use your common sense.”

I recently reviewed a risk assessment where one of the risk controls was identified as ‘common sense’.  From a health and safety perspective, if it were common sense to not insert your fingers into moving parts such as fan blades then we wouldn’t need grills or guarding on equipment. Some people willingly accept a degree of risk or take a course of action to achieve a short-term gain.

For example, some people will try to save time and effort, despite any ‘common sense’ knowledge of a hazard, particularly when under actual or perceived pressure to increase short-term productivity. The end result may actually be a negative outcome. We clearly can’t rely on ‘common sense’ to manage risk in our workplace.

There are some ideas that may seem true by common sense but are in fact false. For example, staff may comment that as there hasn’t been an incident with a piece of equipment for the past 10 years, then the hazard is negligible. This argument is false as it is not the hazard that is negligible but the likelihood of impact that is diminished.

So how common is ‘common sense’ and does it actually make sense? 

The phrase ‘common sense’ refers to practical attitudes and widely accepted beliefs using sound judgment. However, the perception of risk varies from person to person, across age groups and amongst nationalities.

So what is common sense and how does someone know not do something if they do not have common sense?

For ‘common sense’ to be applied or demonstrated, you must first have knowledge.  Knowledge may be acquired from information that is taught, read, heard, media, publications, and from any source including anecdotes. Then there needs to be exposure to the issue from which there will be a learning experience. Learning experiences are necessary for survival. The exposure need not be a personal experience but an experience through another person’s encounter.

Why is it we often undertake an activity despite the known experiences of others who recommend we do not undertake the experience ourselves such as parental guidance to a child, e.g., “Don’t touch that, it’s hot”?  It appears we still have to feel for ourselves and experience the heat or even the burn. The experience of positive or negative outcomes in the form of feelings, emotions, thoughts, observations, actions, and repercussions impacts on us. Even from a single exposure, a person is then in a position to make an informed decision. Through a variety of exposures, life’s experiences are accumulating, and comprehension of particular and imprecise matters is growing. 

Given the increased experience, foreseeability of consequence becomes practicable and operative.  However, the more exposures there are, the greater the knowledge, information and experience to draw from to make that informed decision, improving the necessary link of foreseeability.

So what is ‘common sense’?  The summation of (mathematical symbol ‘E’) several factors to enable an informed decision drawn upon life’s experiences on which to act:

Common Sense = E (Knowledge + Experience + Exposure + Foreseeability)

Finally, don’t just rely on your own judgment or ‘common sense’ - check you actions and follow the prescribed risk controls to carry out your work safely.