The Normalisation of Deviance 

What is, the Normalisation of Deviance?

The normalisation of deviance is, doing something the wrong way, even though we may know it is wrong, but without feeling or realising any level of negative effect, which results in that way becoming the normal or “accepted” behaviour.

This phrase was first coined back in 1986 following the NASA shuttle disaster in which 7 astronauts sadly lost their lives. It was Diane Vaughan, the eminent Professor of the department of sociology of Columbia University, New York who basically suggested that just because something was being done a certain way and that as there was no negative effect experienced of it being done that way, even though it was unsafe, then it was seen as acceptable, how wrong they were. This is akin the well-known phrase, “we’ve always done it this way”, but just because it is, doesn’t mean we should.

This is what the normalisation of deviance is, it is doing something the wrong way, even though we may know it is wrong, but without feeling or realising any level of negative effect, which then results in that way becoming the normal or “accepted” behaviour.

So how does this relate to asbestos?

If you accept the fact that exposure to asbestos can result in serious, often fatal consequences, then you would take care when interacting with it. The problem is, the effects of handling asbestos in the wrong way are not instantly recognised, asbestos is after all a category 1 carcinogen. This means that it has been proven to cause cancers in humans. The problem here is that cancers take time to develop, and the potential victim of a cancer needs to be susceptible to the carcinogen.


What this means in real terms is that if for example you were to work with asbestos without care, if you were to break it, disturb it, sweep up the debris and dust etc., you would not experience any immediate negative affect, so in your mind, it isn’t dangerous.  Due to this, the next time a similar operation is presented, why would you do it differently?

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Let use an analogy, take the UK speed limits. We are all aware that every road in the UK has an assigned speed limit. In built up, urban areas for example, this tends to be 30 mph. But let’s be truthful and honest with ourselves, do we really drive at the speed limit? Maybe we creep up to 33, 34, or maybe even a touch more, but why? Why do we find it acceptable to exceed these prescribed and legally required and defined limits? It’s the Normalisation of Deviance, the NoD.

The actual chances of experiencing a negative effect from speeding are slim, there isn’t always a traffic (speed safety) camera van on every street, not all roads have fixed cameras and then, those that do aren’t always active. We don’t all crash or hit a cyclist or pedestrian, so again, no immediate negative effect is experienced, therefore, in our minds, speeding becomes normalised, accepted behaviour, until that fateful day when we do encounter the roadside van, or even more concerning, the pedestrian.  It is then when we get the negative effect.

I can say, and this is no boast, nor am I proud of it, that I have been caught speeding. I’ve paid the fine, accepted the points and once, I even attended the speed awareness training sessions. I experienced an instant negative effect to my wrong actions, thankfully no one was harmed, I was lucky. It is however funny how our attitude to speeding changes when we have experienced that negative effect or when we can see the van, or the camera, funny how our attitude to speed changes, and how suddenly our speed drops to just below the speed limit. oh, and don't rely on the 10% + 2 rule, here's a good site to explain that. LINK

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With asbestos, there are no speed cameras, there are no cyclists to harm, indeed, the person who could be harmed is ourselves.  The problem here is that when that negative effect does turn up, you can’t just pay a fine or attend a one-day course, by then, it’s too late.

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Asbestos kills around 5000 people every year in the UK, over 100,000 people globally, yet the care we take wit hit isn’t always the care we should. Asbestos, as mentioned Is a category 1 carcinogen, it kills people, but this may occur decades after exposure. Image the controls we would follow if asbestos was a toxin, a poison, imagine if exposure to it killed instantly. I’m sure many would take greater care when handling it, they’d make sure it was safely managed and that people were suitably trained to work with it.  

Remember the NoD, just because you don’t immediately experience the effect, it doesn’t mean the effect isn’t coming. Is it time to change the way we do things?

*Diane Vaughn

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