Is "Health and Safety" a threshold concept?

This and its associated pages were originally written to support the Study Days on "Threshold Concepts" which were part of the University of Bedfordshire's PGCE/Cert Ed (Post-Compulsory Education) programme in 2007-2008 (and continue to be so at the time of writing). They have been minimally edited to make sense as stand-alone pages.

This is a piece for discussion, not necessarily a statement of view. It is particularly written for those programme members who have chosen to address Health and Safety as a topic in their Interest Groups for the Study Days.

There is a tendency to believe that the most important things we teach must necessarily be threshold concepts, and health and safety—although renowned for being consummately boring—certainly qualifies as being important. Indeed, it is fundamental, and failure to “get” Health and Safety must result in failure on a course. So it is a threshold concept, right? (I know, "Health and Safety" is a big area, not just a single "it", but I'll treat it as such where I can for the sake of simplicity.)

Up to a point, but not necessarily for the reasons above. I'll take the example of construction as an easy field to discuss; it is a dangerous occupation and many of its dangers are easily detected. But, as anyone wandering the streets and watching jobbing builders at work will know, they blithely use angle-grinders without goggles or gloves, never wear hard hats, probably do not wear safety footwear, run cables over the pavement... There are all kinds of reasons for those failings, which we may touch on later. But it is clear that someone who "thinks like a builder" does not necessarily treat H & S issues in the same way as they are taught in college.

So H & S issues may matter more to the colleges and to employers than they do to (in this case) tradesmen, and sometimes perhaps more for reasons of covering backs that for more honourable ones.

Let's evaluate H & S against the criteria for threshold concepts; I'll use Cousin's (2006) elegant distillation of the idea:

  1. "Grasping a threshold concept is transformative because it involves an ontological as well as a conceptual shift. We are what we know." Sorry about "ontological"—it simply means (here) that it changes our understanding of ourselves. Well, does H & S do that? In some minor senses, perhaps, but very rarely. On the other hand, the process of "thinking like a builder" does transform the person, and part of that is the way he (excuse the sexism, but this is a male-dominated industry) he assesses risks. It's not the Health and Safety learning itself which has threshold concept qualities, not the answers it provides—it's the questions which make the difference.
  2. "A threshold concept is often irreversible; once understood the learner is unlikely to forget it (this does not exclude subsequent modification or rejection of the concept for a more refined or rival understanding)." Going by learners' results on multiple-choice tests assessing knowledge in this area, H & S does not qualify. It is not surprising; on the whole learners are not engaged, they are bored, and sometimes they have to sit through days of this stuff before anyone dares allow them near a ladder or a lump-hammer. If we had to devise a recipe for a subject for people to forget as soon as they have learned it, H & S would be the perfect candidate. On the other hand, intuitive risk assessment (not tick-box forms) is an attitude of mind, a frame of reference which once acquired is not easily forgotten. How that is acquired, of course, is often quite problematic.
  3. "Another characteristic of a threshold concept is that it is integrative in that it exposes the hidden interrelatedness of (the) phenomenon." Meaning? That H & S is often taught as a fragmented list of do's and don'ts which certainly do not "integrate" anyone's understanding of anything. But risk is found everywhere; the recognition of the risk dimension underpinning how you set out to do anything in construction (related, perhaps, to access at heights or to handling heavy objects) is a common feature; once you have grasped it, it changes the way in which you approach any task in the field.
  4. Cousin's statement of criterion four is a little obscure; I'm going to re-cast it a little by suggesting that it comes down to threshold concepts often being misunderstood because we think we already know what they mean, and therefore do not push ahead to appreciate that their ideas may be much less common-sensical and more counter-intuitive than appears to be the case. Since H and S itself tends to be expressed in terms of rules and instructions and procedures, it is actually quite shallow as a subject; the radical re-orientation of understanding happens with the concept of risk. Unfortunately, courses rarely engage with that level of understanding, because to do so would 'risk' not teaching H and S itself 'properly'.  Cousin says, "This implies a curriculum design perspective that aims for a research-minded approach to mastery in which there is always space for questioning the concept itself." But we daren't do that! The powers that be would have our guts for garters!

So it is perfectly possible that the very importance and centrality of what we might call H and S dogma militates against the subject being addressed as a threshold concept and against deep student learning.

But risk is the other side of the coin. Of course, the problem is compounded by the fact that the reporting of risk in the media is appalling. It requires an understanding of probability, and weighing the likelihood of something bad happening, versus its seriousness if it does, and also how much time, trouble and cost is involved in reducing the risk.  And since it is impossible to eliminate all risks, what is an acceptable level, compatible with actually doing the job?  Let's return to those jobbing builders. I was just chatting with one, Brian, as I walked the dog a few minutes ago. He was wearing trainers, and carrying a cold chisel and lump-hammer, although not using them at the time. He did have goggles on the ground beside him, but no gloves... He's in his late forties. He's been around a long time, and if I'd quizzed him, he would probably have explained how he assesses the risk of each part of his job in similar terms to the probability, seriousness, cost principle above. Of course, given what we know about the number of accidents and injuries in building trades, he may not do that assessment very well. "Blast, I've left my goggles in the van, and it'll take me a minute to collect them; I've only got one hole to drill and this brick is fairly soft—I can have it done in and finished in fifteen seconds!" On the other hand, of course, there is no way he would use a ladder for access when the garden wall forces it to lean at that angle; it may look all right, but...

"That's all very well for him!" you cry. He's got the experience and the maturity to make the decisions; and he has "got" the frame of reference. Indeed; so he has "got" the threshold concept of the nature of risk and its management. But how did he "get" it?  It's not much help to us that he largely "picked it up as he went along", although that is precisely the case. And of course you yourselves have also "got" it, and you got it in just the same way, and—confession time—you exercise "common sense" about H & S when you are not on parade as a teacher.

But consider the process you and he had to go through to arrive at that stage. Slightly off-subject, but have a look at this on H and S myths. First, you had to realise that Health and Safety procedures are not absolute. They often seem to be belt-and-braces cover-my-back motivated (like the silly stories we get in the papers of council jobsworths allegedly banning playing with conkers, or banning hanging baskets). So they need to be seen in context; mentors and supervisors at work know this, although they themselves will have been "got at" by the college to ensure slavish adherence to every jot and tittle. That in itself is quite a risky bit of learning. It is troublesome knowledge, in Perkins' terms. (I fully expect someone to write to me accusing me of being seriously irresponsible for saying this at all!) It is not surprising if it provokes hesitation and worry for some people (this is the stage before commitment to change which Meyer and Land refer to as "liminal").

But that is not the whole story. There are many factors which can lead to the suspension of, or greater emphasis on H and S concerns, but they are not all equally good. Cutting corners in the interests of cutting costs and exploiting workers is not a good reason; re-evaluating the probability of an accident in the light of new evidence may well be; and responding to an emergency may be. Sometimes. In order to become an informed and responsible risk-taker you had to learn to evaluate the context. But note that "become an informed and responsible risk-taker"; it is not merely your understanding of H and S which is changing, it is also your understanding of yourself.

So risk itself is indeed a threshold concept, but Health and Safety regulations are not. The interesting thing is that the way that we teach them may well militate against effective learning of a really key aspect of practice.

For discussion;

  1. Is my discussion fair?
  2. What are the implications for the ways in which Health and Safety might be addressed on your courses?
  3. How does this discussion increase (or diminish) your understanding of threshold concepts?


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Atherton J S (2013) Doceo; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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