Beware the Ides of March!

The Ides of March is best known as the date on which Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. The emperor was stabbed to death at a meeting of the senate.

The phrase comes from an exchange with an old Seer who had warned that harm would come to Caesar no later than the Ides of March (a date though to be around the 15th of March). So the story goes, on his way to the senate meeting, Caesar passed the Seer and joked, "The ides of March have come," meaning to say that the prophecy had not been fulfilled, to which the Seer replied "Aye, Caesar; but not gone”. In a nutshell, the day isn’t over yet so there’s still time, and of course Caesar then met his bloody fate.

This is a sentiment so true for some organisations’ view of measuring safety successes. How often do organisations measure the success of their health and safety culture based on reactive events leading up until that moment? Gargantuan signs at entry points and on boards… 150 Days without injury! Hark! Rejoice! Well hang on but just one minute…. is that really your safety systems working, or are you simply not ‘seeing’ behaviours and conditions, which will conspire together to ruin the unblemished record you currently hold?

A truer measure of success is considering multiple aspects of the organisation’s performance, reactive and proactive, providing assurances that good performance isn’t down to luck, but design and is proof of ‘living the safety values’.

James Reason theorised that there are several types of ingredient that make up the messy pancake mix of an accident. Latent failures, often the ‘sleeping giants’ are a series of holes or omissions in an organisation’s defences, or perhaps a lack of monitoring which has allowed such defences to go absent without leave. Latent failures can develop gradually overtime, almost stealth like, so that minor rut in the access road has become a major pothole on a turning place for a Forklift. Now comes the Active failure, one or more unsafe acts, perhaps, speeding into the turn with an overloaded forklift. Combine all three and now you have your accident trajectory – it’s just a question of how serious the damage will be, property damage? Disabling injury? Death?

Following an accident within an organisation which has focussed mainly on the outputs of their system, through reactive monitoring, the plaintiff cries of ‘we have had such a good safety record up until now!’ or ‘surely our record to date will reduce the fine?’ can be heard ringing hollow. Like Caesar, there may have been some signs along the way hinting at what was to come, had there been more proactive monitoring methods, these ‘bad omens’ could have allowed an early warning signalling that action should be taken.

If Caesar had paid attention to the Seer, the Ghosts and the Nightmares (not to mention the ominous thunder and lightning) he might just have decided to skip the Senate meeting and stay home with a nice cup of cocoa and mull the idea of ruling Rome over.

Of course, even with good systems, proactive monitoring and regular review, accidents can and do still happen, but in those circumstances there is a greater chance of a clear conscience as well as a clear record. Package it how you will, ‘Beware the Ides of March’, ‘It ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings’, ‘don’t count your chickens’; if you want to stop measuring safety proactively with a clear conscience, Retire.

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