Author Bio ▼

Heather Beach is Founder and Managing Director of The Healthy Work Company and has been running businesses in health and safety for over 20 years. Having run Barbour, SHP and Safety and Health Expo, she is now running her own business. The Healthy Work Company provides solutions which drive the wellbeing agenda to enable thriving in the workplace at all levels. Offering more than simply training, it delivers strategic support for your wellbeing programme. "We are driving the mental health agenda towards how human beings thrive in life – often through work, not in spite of it!" Heather can be reached on [email protected].
March 2, 2017

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Is Safety Differently REALLY all that different?



Last year, when John Green came out and said “Safety is broken”, I was hooked.

I started to spread the word, getting him involved in webinars, writing for SHP, and speaking on panels at Safety and Health Expo.

It appealed to me, because having worked among the health and safety profession for 25 years, I can see that we need to build on the excellent work which has been done since the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act, and there is a real case for change emerging.

This is notwithstanding the fact that there are some brilliant health and safety leaders in this country. I have had the pleasure of working with many of them and they are characterised by their ability not to think they have all the answers, but to be collaborative, self-critical, and to be striving to be the best version of themselves.  There is no doubt that John Green is a great orator. That he has huge credibility. And that he has got the safety profession talking.

However, a lot of what I’ve heard from others has been that Safety Differently, isn’t all that different. That, really, a lot of what is being talked about as radically different,  is already being done.

Having attended a couple of short introductions on Safety Differently – led by John Green and Daniel Hummerdal – I didn’t feel I was in a position to argue one way or another. However, last week I was lucky enough to be invited to ITV’s Safety Differently masterclass, and I think that John is certainly posing some interesting questions.

I did ask him if he deliberately wrapped Safety Differently inside an enigma in order to make people come to the masterclass? But no, he thinks that in one or two hours you just can’t get across what you need to – or perhaps, the message just needs some repetition.

Now that I have attended a session, I want to see if I can get across in a really succinct way, what I see the differences suggested by safety differently to be.  I would love to hear from people who are already using some of these distinctions, for instance, examples of where collective insights have worked well.  In my view, examples of experiments performed in practise are needed at the moment as it is seeing how these ideas can really work in practise, in a world of regulation and insurance, which will impact whether “Safety Differently” really does start to thrive, or is just an interesting idea.

The masterclass starts with a suggestion that if we ripped up the rule book for traffic management, then people would be safer. A Dutch engineer called Hans Monderman actually did this – and his system is alive and well in 600 locations – including on Exhibition Road in London.

When Monderman took all the traffic lights and rules out of an intersection, there was risk involved in this innovation – but it actually turned out to reduce accidents and improve traffic flow significantly.

The dual implication of course is that when you allow people to take complete responsibility, they generally act safely and that we should rip up the rule book for health and safety…

A caveat here: we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water – but perhaps we could do it with a series of micro-experiments.

Disproving Heinrich’s triangle

One of the key elements to John’s assertions  which very much goes against conventional health and safety thinking, is that Heinrich’s triangle – which states that likelihood of a fatality rises in line with the number of incidents – has no basis in fact or research.

That, in fact, ALL the major disasters bar one (the only major incident preceded by warning signs was the second Texas City Refinery fire which was preceded by the warning signs of the first Texas City Refinery fire!) have been preceded by long periods of excellent accident performance. That there are over 50 research reports  from around the word which say that fatalities are not preceded by incidents and accidents.

So, does it not make sense that, by far the greatest degree of focus should be on where your business has the greatest risk of fatalities? John asserts that you shift your focus away from the slips and trip and cut fingers; focus on where it really matters.

“There is no such thing as an accident-free organisation. Just don’t kill or seriously injure anyone.” he  often says. At this point I have to say that, if we are interested in what really kills people, then where does health fit into all this?

With 13,000 people dying of long latency diseases and 6,000 suicides a year then where is health in the “Safety Differently” agenda?   John asserts that the same principles apply, it fits perfectly with the safety differently principles as they see the worker as being the centre of the management of risk and that would include health risks. In addition giving employees mastery and autonomy over the tasks  that they perform as been shown to improve mental well-being and reduce stress.

What does Safety Differently look like in practice?

The first Holy Grail to address is the risk assessment process. Would there be much disagreement that there are generally too many procedures in safety?

John asserts that we have turned safety into something which is no longer about keeping people safe, but is about keeping regulators and boards happy.  We talk about the cost of non-compliance, but what is the cost of over compliance?

Similarly with audits. By the time we do an audit, we are finding things which are already broken. Does the relationship between the auditor and the person being audited allow the latter to point out areas which they know will break soon if not addressed? How do you focus on building relationships so that there really is no blame attached to finding an issue?

Safety Differently advocates that rather than looking at where things go wrong, the focus should be on ‘normal work’. Where can we find examples of work being done well and emulate those?

John is critical of behavioural-based safety (BBS) as he says it provides incentives for people to do things the way the organisation says, and punishes them for doing the opposite. I have to say I think this is unfair. In fact, anyone who has heard Tim Marsh’s ‘curious why’ question sets might think so as well.

Tim would say his whole approach is about empowerment, and the reputation of BBS  has latterly been somewhat tarnished because of badly executed programmes. The distinction between the two programmes could, I believe, be that:  – behavioural based safety tries to alter behaviour to fit the system, whereas Safety Differently creates the system around the behaviour.

It has to be said that the team at ITV is an amazing group of health and safety professionals; they are open to learning and are already a fair way along the journey of innovating inside the profession. They began talking about   how they could take some of these new approaches back to the business and start experimenting  straight away. By the end of the session they had agreed to drop routine inspections. Ruth Denyer, group head of health and safety at ITV, talked about having mature conversations with insurance about areas where some of these experiments could be undertaken.

Daniel Hummerdal closed the masterclass by asking what the role of the safety professional was? To me this was the most powerful question asked.  He said that they had started with three definitions and latterly discovered a further two (4 and 5 on this list).

  1. To detect and correct
  2. To inform and advise
  3. To listen and learn
  4. To be an administrator
  5. To be a servant of the business

This really struck a chord with me. When I was working 25 years ago I believe the profession was mostly about 1, 4 and 5. In latter years, it has been moving to 2 and sometimes to 3 T here are a growing number of voices, like Rob Cooling, who recently wrote an excellent article on Linked In on the subject, []  that unless the health and safety profession shifts completely away from that early way of doing things, that it will become completely irrelevant.

Having just started my business in training health and safety professionals in new skillsets outside the technical, including influencing and leadership, as well as providing them tools to move into the mental health space, I cannot but agree with him.

However, having conversations with safety leaders who are on that journey, one of the biggest issues they have is that the business expects them to be a certain way: the way the profession has trained them to expect them to be!

Moving out of the box of being an authoritarian checker who is responsible for ensuring everything is done safely (even if they never have been responsible in reality!) as well as being the fount of all KNOWLEDGE when it comes to safety, is a huge challenge not only for the profession, but for educating the business.

So yes, there are some radical ideas in there. Some professionals will embrace these as revolutionary and there is no doubt that John is a disruptor.

What is certain is that the profession needs to continue to look critically at itself and look at where it can be responsible for moving the conversation forward and away from the media depiction of ‘elf and safety’ and into a more interesting place.

Because only by taking responsibility, can it have any power in the matter. By blaming the media and regulators it becomes powerless.

And there is huge power in learning and experimentation.

Heather is looking for examples of organisations using some of the safety differently tools to interview for SHP. Please contact her for more information (or for information about her new courses) on [email protected]. 

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Dominic Cooper
Dominic Cooper
7 years ago

Hi Heather A thoughtful piece indeed. Your statement ” behavioural based safety tries to alter behaviour to fit the system, whereas Safety Differently creates the system around the behaviour.” is so accurate and gets to the heart of the ‘reciprocal’ safety culture model I have previously described since the mid 1990’s. They are not mutually exclusive: one feeds off the other. In other words, we in the profession have to do a bit of both. The principle of the safety differently model is to “optimise the situation to optimise the behaviour”. Where the situation is optimised but the behaviour is… Read more »

7 years ago
Reply to  Dominic Cooper

Dr Dom!!! How lovely to hear from you. Leading on from this, what do you think to John’s assertion that we currently build the process around the lowest common denominator- i.e. Those who don’t demonstrate the safe behaviours. So we build it as if everyone were less than sensible (one might say “stupid”)? H

Dominic Cooper
Dominic Cooper
7 years ago
Reply to  Heather

Agree wholeheartedly, and therein lies the problem! Ray below is also right, too many different disciplines involved without a basis of knowledge, or with biased perspectives. Perhaps ensuring HSE is a component of every management course would go some way to overcoming this particular problem. IN the meanwhile, HSE professionals should try to get their companies try to align the various policies and procedures, and engage employees in the process.

Ray Rapp
Ray Rapp
7 years ago

Interesting perspectives. Not sure how novel ‘safety differently’ really is as I suspect many h&s practitioners would agree with the ideologies and moreover, have tried to implement them in some shape or form. The real problem is that many work practices are beyond the influence of the average practitioner due to company procedures, blanket policies, insurance requirements, not forgetting legal constraints. There is so little scope for thinking outside of the box. Still, nice theory…meanwhile, back in the real world.

7 years ago
Reply to  Ray Rapp

Hi Ray, It feels like a massive uphill struggle – I can see that. Even John can see that experimenting with safety differently may mean dual reporting on occasion – ie doing the tick box stuff as well as doing it differently. However for me, there is a growing understanding that things have to change. I am going to be watching ITV closely (Not the TV programmes, the company ;)). Ruth and her team are going back to the letter of the legislation to understand where they have overlayed new processes which are not absolutely necessary. She is looking at… Read more »

Graham Fairlie
Graham Fairlie
7 years ago

Hi Heather I think we all know that trying to manage error is extremely difficult because there is so much variability in the way that work is carried that influences the decision making of the worker. One big problem is safety is still seen as an outcome (look at the metrics that are typically asked for in business reports and tendering documents as an example) and I don’t agree that it is. I believe safety is capacity in a system that allows failure to occur with out consequence. As Jens Rasmussen observes; humans learn by making micro experiments, sometimes those… Read more »

Kevin Gilroy
Kevin Gilroy
5 years ago

Having just attended Safety Expo 2018 and delivering a short 30 minute presentation it seems I have been practicing Safety Differently for the last 7 years. Who knew lol