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Thinking About Safety Differently

27th September 2018

Grab a beverage, take a few minutes.  This is going to be a little long for a blogpost, but I’m about to bare a tortured soul.

Safety Differently, Safety-II, Human Organizational Performance (HOP), these are some of the “new safety” movements you may have come across.

If you’re focused on keeping your workplace safe, and have been paying attention to the articles, speakers, papers, and discussions over the last few years, you know a little or a lot about this push for a new way of considering safety.  Some people are looking at these new approaches as radical, controversial, and alarming.  Others see them as a breakthrough in thinking, and an evolution in managing peoples wellness.  So what exactly is this all about, and what’s different?

There’s an article below which provides some insight on what the “New” safety is doing differently, and where perceived changes are needed.  It might give you some perspective on what exactly is different about this movement.  In short, I believe it’s rethinking some very traditional approaches to keeping people safe.  It’s even reconsidering (possibly avoiding) in some cases the very use of the term “safety”.

Article: A Trade Union Perspective on “The New View” of Health and Safety

Before I go any further I’ll profess that I’ve been following these movements for rethinking safety for a few years, ever since seeing Sidney Dekker speak in Vancouver.  That was an interesting and provoking (thought and otherwise) experience. Despite having read a number of articles, and papers over the years, I’m still not sure I understand these movements, however I am intrigued by them.  I can understand the viewpoints of it’s detractors, it’s fanatics, and people like me who just aren’t sure what to think.  I see some logic, but I also find it difficult to let go of some aspects of safety I’ve come to believe in.

Indulge me in some background on my development as a safety professional, and the building of my safety beliefs. I think it may provide some context to where many of us position ourselves in our understanding of safety, how we may perceive these new safety movements and their theories, and why it may be so difficult to absorb their philosophies. However, this is lengthy blogpost, so if you’re not interested in my personal insight, experience, or context skip down to the bullets and resources at the end for a quick summary of some of the key changes in thinking these movements have vocalized.

I was first involved in workplace safety when I was fourteen years old working my 1st job at Tim Hortons as a server. Whether I knew it or not, there were safety issues all around me.  Boiling hot water, mixing equipment, deep fryers (back then they actually made almost all the food in the store), aggressive behaviour from patrons, lifting heavy bags of dough mix.  Hazards abounded.  At that point in my working life, I really didn’t separate safety from work, I almost didn’t think of it consciously at all.  I focused on getting the job done, and inherently, and unconsciously didn’t want to get hurt.

I started being consciously and actively involved in workplace safety in my mid 20’s as a first aid attendant, and member of the safety committee at two workplaces.  In both cases I wanted to be able to make a difference when it mattered, and help people be “safe” in a continually improving manner.

As the years progressed I became more and more involved in health, safety, and also environmental management in the workplace. I was progressing into a HSE professional.  Being young (still in my twenties), I was easily influenced by what the organizations I was working for wanted, what their expectations were, as well as by what peers, and colleagues believed safety to be as well. Regulators were gods to be feared. I had internal debates regularly over where I stood on various topics.  I was forming opinions on what safety was, and was not.  What worked, and what did not.  I spent the next 10 years attending conferences, getting certificates, working with different employers, and regulators, and continually adding to, and adapting my safety beliefs.  The Bird Triangle, James Reasons Swiss Cheese, William Haddon, Taproot, OHSAS 18001, Maslow, so many intelligent people, theories, and organizations professing their value!  I can calculate CFM, and I’m a CRSP for Pete’s sake, obviously I know something about safety! Right? Some of these elements of safety may now be scoffed at by this new way of thinking safety, but they helped me form my safety beliefs, and had value for me then, as many still do now!  They were the foundation of my profession, my rock from which I gained stability, and focus.

I was using reasonably well established practices, tools, and methodologies, but often with inconsistent results.  I’m still a big proponent of gathering data, it can help you identify trends, however there are absolutely complications with data management.  In relation to workplace safety, I was data, and other safety solutions, for safety problems, like I had been taught, and learned.  What could go wrong?  People, people can go wrong, and people do go wrong.  Humans will make mistakes.  How well do our workplaces protect us from making mistakes, and protecting us when we do?  It is this human element that vexed me when dealing with safety.  If only people would just do what I needed them to do.

Over time I started to see the value in understanding the human element of safety. Focusing less on how to do “safety”, and more on understanding why people made the decisions they did I started to see that people had different ideas of what level of risk could be tolerated. People didn’t all share my understanding of safety, they had different perceptions of hazards, tolerances of risks.  Could I understand their perspectives?  Trying to work towards a common goal, with many different perspectives can be challenging, but rewarding when you do.  Realizing that different wasn’t always wrong was an incredibly powerful and humbling insight, and a lesson I still fail to grasp at times.  I started to see more and more organizations were open to considering proactive safety practices rather than reactively responding to poor practices, or their results, they had interesting perspectives on managing hazards and risk, and I was fully on board!  I thought this was progressive stuff!  I thought I had come a long way from my initial beliefs of what safety was in my twenties. I’m starting to think about safety differently, and starting to get out front of progressive safety!  Go Scott!!

Wrong. When I heard about Sidney Dekker, I thought, a kindred spirit!  This guys is like me, he’s seeing how we can think about safety in a different light as well.  How fundamental people are to safety.  I’ve got a chance to see him, this will be an enlightening epiphany of an experience.  Turns out, not so much.  If I thought I had jumped years ahead of me in my twenties, Sidney was lightyears ahead of me in my twenties.

While there were some of my thoughts that I think were on the same thought curve as Sidney, generally, what I thought Sidney thought, was not what he thought at all, it was just what I thought I wanted him to think, and my thought of safety differently was definitely different than Sidney’s thoughts, which were based on studies, and scientific theories, they were analytical, far reaching, uninhibited, profane and profound.  Much of what we think is good safety practice, he didn’t. He was blaspheming at the altar of safety!  While some aspects of his talk made sense, and I understood, others I felt were going too far.  These were the insights of a genius madman, far too complex for me to understand.  Where’s my taproot books?

This context I provided I think paints a picture of me being a fairly typical safety professional, studying, working, applying learnings, but it’s juxtaposed against the older safety professional who believes there is more to managing peoples wellbeing in the workplace.  I believe much of what I learned is a good foundation, but that there’s room to focus on people, better.

This new safety thinking, is challenging the definition of “safety” and in turn how we achieve it. Interesting thinking, and there are some dramatic but logical assertions, and departures on what that definition of safety is.  I’ve realized that some of what I’ve been adapting my understanding of safety towards overlaps with some of these safety movements concepts, but by their determination, I’m still not thinking differently enough.  Perhaps I’m not, but I’m listening, and looking for the practical applications of some of this new thinking.

So as I continue to examine my understanding of safety, you too have your own views, definitions, and understanding of what safety is, how it should be applied, managed, and what good safety is.  These perspectives, opinions, and assumptions have been built over the years through your own experiences, education, and observations, as I’ve summarized some of mine, and I’d encourage you to delve into some of the articles I’ve included as references at the end of this post to better understand these movements yourself.

In my case, thirty years later, that fourteen year old kid from Tim Hortons finally has an understanding of safety, and has relative closure on what safety is to him, much like you may. We may believe we are good at what we do, and that we provide value to those we work with.  Wait, wait a minute, Sidney Dekker, are you saying I’m not, and I don’t?   Erik Hollnagel you’re saying my colleagues traditional beliefs are missing the point?  Is it possible my fourteen year old self had a better handle on safety in the workplace than this self-professed safety professional?

Am I about to have a mid-career crisis?  What on earth am I supposed to think about this movement, this thinking about safety differently?  What’s wrong with the safety I’ve finally figured out? There are plenty that are supporters of this movement that would say plenty is wrong with my view of safety!  That the ways of traditional safety have passed, and new ways will bring improved ways of keeping people safe.

There are those that would say stay the course, that see this movement as nothing but a spin on what’s already been identified and done, and a bunch of self-righteous academics spouting hyperbole.

It would appear that there are different movements, disciplines, or concepts encouraging us to rethink some of the traditional safety paradigms. I am not advocating these movements, nor am I criticizing them.  I’m trying to figure out what aspects fit my current understanding of safety.  I’m trying to understand if there are elements of my understanding of safety that need to be reconsidered…..again.  I’m trying to figure out if their right.

My understanding of safety has continually evolved and shifted, I’ve always been open to learning more about different ways to achieve positive results.  My curiosity with this movement is, where’s the value?  What value could I extract from it?

Below is a summary of key aspects of this movement that I have come across.  I need to be clear that this is my interpretation of some of the key mindsets, and is not a direct reflection of a specific movement, or ethos, just an attempt at putting some of the concepts that I’ve come across into print.

For those of you far more in the know, feel free to correct me where I’ve erred in my interpretation!  Some insights from those who are thinking of safety in a new and debatably controversial light are:

  • There is a belief that some traditional means of measuring safety hold less value today
  • The term “safety” is poorly understood, and often misused
  • Safety is often defined as a deficit, or absence rather than a presence or abundance
  • The concept of “safety first” is often not feasible, realistic, or applied
  • The concept of “Zero Harm, or Zero injuries” has served a purpose, but no longer holds value
  • Engaging with the workforce, and collaborating with those that perform tasks can increase trust, and help provide value in managing safety at work
  • Safety investigations, and root cause analysis, how they are undertaken, and where their value is should be reconsidered
  • How we understand, interact, and are influenced socially has bearing on our decision making, and safety
  • More protection doesn’t mean safer environments
  • Reconsidering the belief that accidents are a result of human error

For sure there are some interesting points of view listed above, and I find myself instantly thinking “but…..”.  For example, I have conducted a number of incident investigations, that in my biased opinion, helped to identifity a gap, flaw, or lack of control that could be corrected to reduce likelihood of recurrence.  Was I wrong?  I agree that how an investigation is done can have hugely variable outcomes and degrees of value, but would I avoid using them?  No.

If you’d like to read a little more around some of the insights and concepts that are being discussed with these movements, I’ve listed a few resources that Jeffrey Lyth, a Vancouver based proponent of this new thinking has kindly shared.  If you haven’t taken the time to understand what this new approach to thinking about safety is, I’d encourage you to take some time and read the resources linked below.  I particularly enjoyed “Some Myths About Industrial Safety” by Denis Besnard, and Erik Hollnagel.

The saying goes “Change is the only constant in life”, and so expecting my beliefs to stay constant is illogical, hence my interest in these movements, they certainly seem to be about change.  Hopefully you are inspired, challenged, moved, angered, or intrigued like me after taking some time to get your head around some of these insights, concepts, and thoughts.  I believe they have merit, I’m just not sure how much….yet.  I’m not sure I’ll ever be a complete convert, but I can see that I’ve already been walking a little of this path before knowing others were on it, and I can see a possibility of me adopting more of what I’m reading, if I can get my head around it.

Please by all means reach out with any comments you have on the direction, and value of these movements, or your own experiences with the shifting world of safety.  I’m keen to hear others opinions, experiences, and ideas in relation to this topic.


Posted in: Safety Blog