Catching them at it: An ethnography of rule violation: Discussion, September 15, 2020

Paper: Iszatt-White, Marian Catching them at it: An ethnography of rule violation (2007)

Presenter: Sarah Zinn


Is knowing why a safety rule exists important to compliance?

  • Knowing why a rule exists not only convinces me that following the rule is important but also makes it easier to remember the rule. Example: labelling secondary containers versus labelling waste containers and why these are different.
  • You can set aside a rule to get a job done faster, but this can backfire if things go wrong. Now you have to figure out why things are going wrong.
  • In the industrial environment discussed in the paper, it is understandable that workers would be reluctant to discuss safety issues because their job might be on the line. With students, they find it easier to discuss these issues with one another.
  • I’ve seen students hide broken glassware in educational labs because of a potential $25 fee; I’ve had graduate students tell me that they are afraid to reveal incidents and Near Misses because they are afraid they will “get in trouble” even if they can’t really define who they would be in trouble with or what kind of trouble it would be.
  • Culture is important to safety conversations and conversations about incidents being acceptable and accepted. People who are “highly reactive” when things do not go as planned can deteriorate a culture; instead incidents should be used as opportunities to be proactive.
  • I’ve worked hard in my department to build the safety culture; I have worked to build a space that influences graduate students’ behavior – then graduate students have influenced PIs.
  • How do we study what we are actually talking about?
  • The ethnographic studies undertaken by Silbey and Huising (see last week’s discussion for Huising’s paper) at MIT are an interesting place to start; they help illuminate the culture, the power centers, and the conflicting work dynamics that shape an academic safety culture.
  • Asking “safety recalcitrant” PIs about why they are so can be a revelatory experience. Some just want talk to you at all, but those who do talk end up describing bad experiences they have had with safety professionals; back in the 1970s and 1980s, the expectations changed fast. All of a sudden there was all of this “safety stuff” just shoved down people’s throats without any critical discussion. This left a bad taste for lots of people. It does seem like it is older PIs who are the ones who are less willing to engage. The younger PIs seems to be much more open to the conversations.
  • PIs can be seen as “the workers” or “the operatives” in that sense. They need to be included in the discussion as the frontline just as much as the graduate students.
  • This paper seems to formalize and put into academic terms what safety professionals have learned about behavioral safety over the years as practitioners.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *