‘Nothing is true but change, nothing abides…’

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The main aim of our business is to teach people how to think, how to problem solve, how to investigate the causes of events, and learn from them and from the past. That’s why a knowledge and understanding of history is so very important. To that end I read a great deal.

This week’s reading has been particularly enlightening and has thrown up a number of concepts. On LinkedIn there was an article posted in which the author stated a preference for ‘Safety Always’ as opposed to ‘Safety First’ because, he reasoned, safety should always be in the forefront of our minds, not just the first thing on the meeting agenda. It is a very fair point.

Another writer drew my attention by asserting that complying with rules was not enough, because the rules may not be appropriate in all circumstances. We must keep wits sharp enough to respond appropriately in any given situation. While not throwing out the need for ‘laws’ and ‘rules’, the premise was that adherence to the ‘spirit of the law’ and not the ‘letter of the law’ was optimal. There is a kernel of truth here, food for thought.

At the Safety 30 – Piper Alpha Legacy conference in Aberdeen last month, Steve Rae touched on these ideas in his closing speech. (Read an account here.) Steve is a survivor of the Piper Alpha disaster, who believes that he is alive today because he followed his own instincts instead of the instruction to assemble in the accommodation block. He feels that he demonstrated ‘situational awareness’ rather than obeying a rule. Some ‘gut feeling’ told him that things were different, had changed, and required a different course of action.

Interestingly, in the Grenfell Tower fire, those who disobeyed instructions to stay in their own flats, because they saw the flames travelling on the outside, were also the ones more likely to have survived.

What can we learn from this? It seems to me that an essential skill in life is the ability to reason and think for oneself when circumstances change. Or, your instinct just tells you what is the right thing to do and we should pay attention to it. Blind following of pre-determined instructions or rules does not necessarily work when confronted by unexpected change. As Lewis Grassic Gibbon wrote in his Scots Quair trilogy, responding to the cataclysmic events and consequences of the First World War, ‘Nothing, it has been said, is true but change, nothing abides…’ Of course, this sentiment remains as true now as it was then.

The conclusion seems clear; people need more than technical skills and training to survive, to flourish. More is required to cope with living in a world where change is a given, and we all have to deal with it. Since Piper Alpha, safety systems and behaviours have improved immeasurably, but we still neglect educating resilience, communication skills, the ability to reason, understand and respond to any circumstance at our peril. These non-technical skills, after all, have saved lives, and can ultimately help prevent future incidents. As Steve Rae said, ‘We owe it to these individuals to start investing in competency of soft skills’.

That is why we spend our time focusing on just that: teaching thinking, problem solving, investigating and learning from events and from history.

By Lorna Ramsay