Safety science as a research field is “effectively stagnant”, according to Dr Drew Rae, a senior lecturer in the Safety Science Innovation Lab at Griffith University, which has issued a call for closer co-operation between practitioners and researchers on high-quality research projects.
Very little progress has been made towards understanding what causes accidents, or how to prevent them, said Dr Rae.
Instead of focusing on solid progress, he said there is a “battleground of ideas” where intellectuals advocate for and against particular big picture worldviews.
There are three groups of people who suffer as a result of this issue, explained Dr Rae, who recently presented as part of the AIHS’ SAFEfest 2020 – a Festival of Safety Ideas.
The first group is safety practitioners, he said: “at the moment, a huge amount of practitioner effort is spent on unrewarding activities that are unsupported by evidence.”
Dr Rae said there are some that exploit frustration by offering “more inspiring alternatives” that are equally unsupported by evidence.
The second group of people is the research community.
“Every year thousands of academic papers are produced about safety,” said Dr Rae.
“The vast majority of these bear no direct connection to the work of safety practitioners, either in the data they draw from, or the impact they produce.”
The third group that suffers are the organisations that pay for the work of the safety practitioners and for the research, he explained.
“They are not victims, because they are highly complicit in the problem,” said Dr Rae, who said these organisations should instead focus on “funding high-quality research that would make life better for everyone.”
Dr Rae recently co-authored a Manifesto for Reality-based Safety Science and he explained that the key elements of the manifesto call for a move away from some types of safety improvement projects, and towards more productive projects.
Projects that are more likely to be ineffective involve:
“What can we do about this?” Dr Rae asked.
“For businesses, the starting point is to realise that proper research about their own practices is a cost-saving exercise, not an expenditure.”
Every organisation is currently paying their own staff to perform activities that cost time and money, but do not help safety, he said.
“Worse, many businesses are paying outside consultants or researchers to help them increase the amount of unproductive activity,” said Dr Rae.
For industry bodies and funders of research, Dr Rae said the most important thing is, paradoxically, to stop focussing on identifying research priorities and on funding projects based on their immediate practical impact.
“For practitioners, I think the key is to start thinking of ourselves as professionals,” said Dr Rae.
A professional is someone who situates their work in a broad understanding of their field, and applies that understanding in a local context.
In the absence of specific local knowledge to the contrary, he said a professional should be guided by the best available evidence of what generally works.
“Where there is no such evidence, a professional should proceed cautiously, and should cooperate with researchers to advance the state of evidence, rather than operating beyond it,” said Dr Rae.
“That’s what we expect of other life-critical professionals such as doctors.
“Why are we horrified when a doctor prescribes an untested treatment, but not horrified when a safety practitioner does so?
“Why do we pay for health researchers to thoroughly test each treatment, but only fund new research projects that promise shiny new pills, instead of the ones that offer thorough testing?”