Volume 2, Issue 1, 1998

Editor's Chronicle

In the social science and humanities faculties at the Stockholm University of the 1960s, multi-disciplinary approaches to social problems ruled and the idea of constructive co-operation between academic niches was strong and pervasive. No-one thought for a moment that the sociologists could understand anything of a dynamic social pattern without the added and parallel perspective of the psychologist, the anthropologist and the economic historian.

Confronted with the traditions at the more prestigious faculties of medicine and engineering during the 1970s and 1980s, it was hard to find the proponents of wide-ranging, multi-disciplinary approaches to interesting research problems.

The ideals of solitary splendour, individualistic career ambitions, and a certain lack of training in the theory and philosophy of science combined to drive the successful engineering and medical students into research activities without multi-disciplinary approaches.

Maybe the success of the engineering and medical sciences is proof enough. The development of technology and medicine in the last 100 years is astounding, while social and behavioral science seem to have had a rather marginal effect on social development since 1914.

Social, political and economic aspects of human survival don't seem to have moved in great qualitative leaps; nothing comparable to computers or space shuttles have changed life in Belfast or Calcutta in the last 85 years.

However, I believe that the particular case of industrial safety and occupational injury prevention demands the combined approach of several disciplines:

Epidemiology commands the necessary tools to assess the prevalence of negative outcomes given certain hazardous exposures; psychology will explain the cognitive aspects of human behavior, perceptions, attitudes and emotions; sociology and human resource management can interpret the pertinent results of group behavior and tell us how organisations change and why; ergonomists can find solutions to exposure problems in perceptual, manual and cognitive tasks; structural engineers can pinpoint the relevant safety aspects in design; and statisticians can evaluate the measurement of incidence and validate potential outcomes of interventions.

The combination of perspectives would serve to improve the quality of professional applications, at least in the classical academic sense. This is what I think when my medical colleagues in the International Commission on Occupational Health want us to change the title of the Scientific Committee on Accident Prevention so that we rid ourselves of the word 'accident' - allegedly because the word itself is a problem in the US; it connotes something unavoidable.

The medically trained prefer anything to do with prevention to relate to 'injury', which is the consequence of trauma known to the medical doctor. Of course, this means that you turn all aspects of prevention into something related to a fait accompli, something you can't prevent - only repair, heal and rehabilitate. A multi-disciplinary approach to safety can't accept this. Safety science can't wait until there is an 'injury'! To prevent you must try to make sense of all the injury-preceding events, conditions, factors, structural traits, ergonomic aspects, sociological dimensions, economic conditions, logistics, and perhaps a few other aspects to do with normal life and what might deviate from normal and give rise to accident and injury.

I wish the medicos would understand this!

Tore J Larsson