How Common is Common Sense?

How did you learn that a stovetop could be hot and burn you? Some would say that’s common sense, that human beings have an innate awareness of hazards, yet I’m guessing many of you learned the hard way – by touching a hot stove.

What about brushing your teeth? Have you ever hurt yourself doing that? When was the last time you locked your keys in your vehicle or slipped on a patch of ice? Have you ever run into a stationary object while driving? If you have common sense, none of these things should ever happen, right? Yet they do.

And decidedly, if we all have common sense, it should be impossible to set an outrigger on someone else’s foot or your own (yes, it happened); people should be so aware of electrical hazards that they always insulate and isolate while working energized lines; and no one should ever text while driving or drink and drive.

So, perhaps common sense isn’t that common, or maybe it doesn’t exist at all.

Variations in Common Sense
The purpose of this article is not to debate the existence of common sense. It is to raise awareness about how the assumption of its existence negatively impacts leadership, safety and operational excellence. My hope is that this article will:

  • Remind readers that people are always equal, but they are never the same. Each of us has different levels of situational awareness and risk tolerance; preconceived notions about work site conditions and hazards; and preferences, motivations and tendencies.
  • Encourage you to favor intentional decision making over gut feelings and emotional actions based on comfort and convenience. That means choosing tools such as pre-job briefings, self-checks and post-job briefings – which allow us to plan and execute efficient, quality, safe work – over assumptions, biases, preferences and tendencies.
  • Spur us to eliminate vague post-incident corrective actions – like “pay more attention” or “use common sense” – that create confusion and instead replace them with specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely (SMART) action items that will prevent recurrence.

A World Based on Common Sense
Perhaps the best way to make the argument that common sense doesn’t exist is to assume it does. Think about it. A world truly based on common sense sounds ideal, right? We wouldn’t need to create culture or lead people because they would always do the right thing. We could eliminate our safety programs because people would be able to identify and control hazards on their own. And we could throw away our safety and work methods manuals because people would always know what to do and how to work. It would just be common sense. Let’s take it a few steps further:

  • Driving would be low risk because distracted driving would cease to exist, and everyone would do the speed limit and follow all posted regulations. That’s just common sense.
  • We would no longer worry about electrical hazards during energized work or about the need for proper grounding during de-energized work because the hierarchy of controls would mitigate such hazards and protect us from getting hurt. That’s just common sense.
  • Our jobs would become much more comfortable. I wouldn’t need a hard hat because I’d never stand underneath a suspended load or anyone working aloft, and I wouldn’t need flame-resistant clothing because arc flash would be prevented by equipment design. That’s just common sense.
  • Company profitability would increase due to extended equipment life cycles because we would never exceed load capacities or cause side strains or shock loading. That’s just common sense.
  • No one would be late to work or school because we would remember to always set our alarms and get up on time. We would also anticipate that there may be traffic and leave the house early. That’s just common sense.
  • Quality and safety would increase because we would stop trying to multitask and focus our attention on one task at a time. That’s just common sense.

Implications and Application
Let me be clear about two things. First, I do not mean to imply that we are stupid and incapable of making logical and informed decisions. Second, I acknowledge that gut feelings and experience are sometimes a good basis of correct decisions.

What’s important here is not the debate about common sense – it is the application of that debate. We must lead, manage and interact with people as they are, not the way we wish they were. That means we cannot and should not rely on our own common sense or the common sense of others. Decision-making tools – such as STAR, E + R = O, and HVP assessments – are useful aids in replacing and supplementing common sense.

In closing, I hope this article has raised awareness about when you, your team and your programs are relying too much on common sense – and what you should do instead. The decision-making tools I referenced in the previous paragraph have been discussed in detail in previous Frontline Fundamentals articles (see https://incident-prevention.com/blog/frontline-fundamentals) and in Incident Prevention Institute education (see https://ip-institute.com), so I encourage you to check out those resources to learn more.

About the Author: David McPeak, CUSP, CET, CHST, CSP, CSSM, is the director of professional development for Utility Business Media’s Incident Prevention Institute (https://ip-institute.com). He has extensive experience and expertise in leadership, human performance, safety and operations. McPeak is passionate about personal and professional development and believes that intrapersonal and interpersonal skills are key to success. He also is an advanced certified practitioner in DISC, emotional intelligence, the Hartman Value Profile, learning styles and motivators.

About Frontline Fundamentals: Frontline Fundamentals topics are derived from the Incident Prevention Institute’s popular Frontline training program (https://frontlineutilityleader.com). Frontline covers critical knowledge, skills and abilities for utility leaders and aligns with the Certified Utility Safety Professional exam blueprint.

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Webinar: How Common is Common Sense?
May 12, 2021, at 1 p.m. Eastern
Visit https://frontlineutilityleader.com for more information.

Frontline Fundamentals


David McPeak, CUSP, CIT, CHST, CSP, CSSM

David McPeak, CET, CHST, CSP, CSSM, CUSP, is the director of professional development for Utility Business Media’s Incident Prevention Institute (www.ip-institute.com). His experience includes operations management, safety and training roles. McPeak holds multiple safety and training certifications and has received numerous awards. He also has served as chairman of Task Team One of the OSHA ET&D Partnership, as a member of Incident Prevention’s editorial advisory board and as a member of the North Carolina Apprenticeship Council. Reach him at david@utilitybusinessmedia.com.

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