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The case for doing safety differently

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Over the past two decades, safety improvements across a number of industries have largely flatlined – as measured in fatalities and serious injury rates, for instance – despite a vast expansion of safety investment, compliance and paperwork.


The cost of compliance and bureaucratic accountability demands are mind-boggling, but it has also stopped progressing safety.

The case for doing safety differently

That is the premise of Safety differently, an approach developed by Sidney Dekker, founder of the Safety Differently movement, Professor of psychology at Griffith University in Australia and expert on human factors and safety. His proposal is about halting or pushing back on the bureaucratisation and compliance of work. The movement sees people not as a problem to control, but as a resource to harness.

According to the movement, it’s an illusion to think that in today’s standard model of safety, systems are already safe and need protection from unreliable human beings.

It’s not true that the only thing we need to do to make systems safer is to provide more procedures, more automation and tighter monitoring of performance. Emails from managers imploring people to stop making errors. Imploring people to follow the rules. Saying ‘if we just ask everybody to try a little harder, we’ll have a safe system’.

There are cases where safety is too focused on near misses instead of critical issues. Photograph: iStock/stevecoleimages

Sidney says that what you need to do is to invert the perspective. Safety is not the absence of errors and violations, but the presence of something. Presence of what?

For him, when you get into the details, what you see is under difficult circumstances people can still make things go right because of their adaptive capacity. Resilience is this people’s adaptive capacity and the ability to bounce back, the capacity to accommodate change and absorb disruptions without catastrophic failure.

Recent research backs this up: the risk of fatalities and life-changing events hide in normal, daily routine practices.

Heinrich: minor accidents predict major ones

The Safety Differently movement views accidents like the BP Deepwater Horizon spill in April 2010 as a result of focusing too much on near misses instead of critical issues, and so it finds fault in Herbert William Heinrich’s idea that minor accidents predict major ones.

For the movement predicators, safety should be rather about ethical responsibility for people, assets and communities, instead of a bureaucratic accountability to managers, boards and regulators.

Safety Differently doesn’t just want to stop things from going wrong but is curious about discovering why things go well and helping organisations enhance the capacities in their teams, people and processes that make it so.

 According to Sidney, organisations looking to excel at safety must:

  • Never take past success as a guarantee of future safety. The fact that this went right yesterday doesn’t mean it will go right today.
  • Past results are no reason to be confident that adaptive strategies will keep on working.
  • Keep a discussion of risk alive even when everything looks safe. Sources of risk may have suddenly shifted in ways that are very difficult to be recognised.
  • Bring in different and fresh perspectives. Listen to minority viewpoints and take them seriously. Invite doubt. Manage to stay curious and open-minded.

Sidney Dekker will speak at the EHS Congress in Berlin, on 21 and 22 April, alongside other world experts  in environment, safety and health.

Safety Management is a media partner of the congress.

More information at: ehscongress.com

Safety Differently movie: 

 

 

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