February 22, 2017 - We appear to be sliding into an era where truth and facts are seen as disruptive irritations to the agendas, not only of outspoken ‘populist’ politicians, but also increasingly of large companies and industry associations.
The former was seen most clearly last year with the Brexit campaign leading up to the UK referendum during which there was an appalling litany of exaggerated doomsday scenarios, outright lies and distorted facts on both sides of the argument. This was followed by the presidential campaign in the USA where at one point it was thought 70 percent of the ‘facts’ spouted by the winning candidate were apparently wrong, and the other candidate looked honest by being untruthful only 30 percent of the time!
Since then the term ‘alternative facts’ has emerged and we have witnessed strong condemnation of the press for not reporting the party line - no matter how inaccurate or wrong. There has always been ‘spin’, exaggeration and distortion in politics, but we are now entering a period where the use of blatant untruths - Fake News if you will - is being defended or fluffed off with little shame when exposed.
Of greater concern is the way that information suppression, untruths and nastiness is seeping into the construction and associated industries. You might argue it was always like this, but social media and the internet have given rumours and lies far greater exposure, perhaps creating a reaction towards even greater suppression and dishonesty?
In this atmosphere how do we differentiate between fact and fiction? It is really down to us all to support good quality impartial news services, while ignoring and refusing to give credence to sources that peddle untruths.
The worst aspect of this is the suppression of information surrounding accidents or near misses in the workplace. While not new, it hampers progress towards greater safety at work. The advent of mobile phones with good cameras makes hiding such incidents far harder. And yet whenever we report a near miss or accident that is not in the mainstream media, the first thing the site managers do is conduct a witch hunt to find who ‘leaked’ the information, rather than focus on what lessons can be learnt from the mistake and sharing it with others to help save lives. Some of those guilty happily grandstand at safety award ceremonies, while rigidly suppressing any information that might help improve safety. The safety authorities know that companies suppress and ignore near misses, but the principle reasons for this is the way some of them look to blame and prosecute rather than learn.
Another example is the suppression and distortion of the truth in cases where a supplier has made an error which causes an accident, product failure or other serious incident, in order to escape financial penalties. In some cases both sides know exactly what happened in a particular incident, but the ‘guilty’ party lies openly and directly in order to escape responsibility. Some of this is down to the legal system that looks to blame and punish rather than prevent future occurrences.
We need industry leaders and associations to stand up, unite and fight for a far more open atmosphere. We already have a fine example of how this can be done in the aviation industry. It is no accident that operating a big aircraft is statistically safer than operating a crane and possibly even a platform.
While none of this is new, I fear that the changing political atmosphere with senior leaders treating truth and free speech with a level of disdain that most of us have never seen before, emboldens those who already have such tendencies. It certainly does nothing to encourage enlightenment and openness, making the reporting of accidents or manufacturing errors more remote than ever.
Perhaps a solution might be for companies to sign up to a truth and openness charter that treats justified whistle blowing with respect - in an open atmosphere there is no role for the whistle blowers - and the reporting of near misses rewarded rather than being punished. While industry associations could lead this, it needs the safety authorities to set the ball rolling, rewarding companies that openly share information on near misses and accidents. This requires the risk of prosecution to be a secondary consideration, with the prevention of future incidents being paramount.
Would companies benefit financially from being more open, honest, transparent and truthful?
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