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Safety and Common Sense

Almost everyone in the world has heard the term “common sense.” Merriam-Webster ( offers two definitions of the term:
1. Sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts.
2. The ability to think and behave in a reasonable way and to make good decisions.

Common sense, as it applies to workplace safety, is something that a lot of people take for granted. According to, “Common sense is something that everyone has but not everyone uses. There are thousands of accidents in the workplace that could have been prevented if the person had used even a little common sense safety. This is not something that can usually be taught. It is more or less something a person is born with, or in some cases, without. While you can’t teach common sense safety, you can teach safety and hope that your employees have enough sense to follow the rules and guidelines you have given to them.” The site goes on to list popular common sense safety tips for the workplace, which include:
• Always pay attention when pouring your coffee. Even a small distraction that causes you to look away for a second could cause you to miss the cup and pour scalding hot coffee all over yourself.
• If there is a sign that says “No Smoking,” then it’s probably a bad idea to light up a cigarette there.
• Be aware of your surroundings. Most people go through the day oblivious, without a worry in the world. You have to know what is going on around you to prevent accidents from occurring.

By now, you should realize how ridiculous some of these statements are. In safety, the first thing we should do is disabuse ourselves of the notion that there is anything in the world known as common sense. It does not exist. It has never existed. It never will exist. There is no such thing.

Think about it: Do you have common sense? If you think you do, how did you get it? Is it common sense not to stick your finger in an electrical outlet? Were you born with that knowledge or did you learn it? Do you think everyone on the planet has that same knowledge? Of course not.

Different Ways of Learning
The fact is that people learn in many different ways. Two of the most common ways people learn are through training and through experience – your own experiences and the experiences of others. As the saying goes, good judgment comes from experience, and most of that comes from bad judgment. So, what’s usually referred to as common sense is actually the compilation of knowledge gained by an individual through his or her life experiences and education, and how that individual uses that knowledge to make decisions.

Most people know that it’s a bad idea to put your hand on a hot stove. How do they know that? For my brother, it was through his own experience, also known as “the hard way.” I learned that particular lesson from watching him. I still remember the trip to the hospital with him screaming in the backseat of the car the whole way there. After that, we both had enough common sense to know not to put our hands on a hot stove.

Confined space workers know that it’s a bad idea to enter a manhole to rescue an unconscious person. How do they know that? It’s likely that they learned it through formal training because most of the people who learned the hard way aren’t around anymore.

People who grew up in the country have a lot of common sense about living in the country. People who grew up in a large city have a lot of common sense about city living. Take them out of their natural environment and put them in an unfamiliar environment, and all of a sudden, none of them have any common sense.

Trouble Starts Here
We get in trouble when we believe that just because someone lives where we live or works where we work, that they have the same level of knowledge or common sense that we have. This is never true. No one can ever have the same level of common sense that you have because they are not you. It is impossible.

In safety, we would much rather have people gain knowledge and make sound decisions based on good training than to have someone learn through a bad experience or misfortune. This is why we have so many mandates for safety training. This is also why we need good job safety analyses, pre-job safety briefings and tailboard safety discussions. We can’t assume that everyone already knows the things that we consider to be common sense.

The goal of the safety professional is to give everyone the same level of knowledge or common sense about a particular subject so that everyone will make good judgments and decisions about taking risks and working safely.

About the Author: Ron Joseph, CUSP, is the operations safety manager for Dayton Power & Light, an AES company. He is a trained incident investigation team leader and a root cause analysis expert who has served on the TapRooT Technical Advisory Board for more than 15 years. In his 30-year career in the nuclear and utility industries, Joseph has personally investigated hundreds of safety incidents and performed safety audits throughout the U.S., Europe and Africa.

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