John Green: safety differently, a vision for the future
2016: looking at health and safety in a different way
By John Green, director HSE, Laing O’Rourke Europe
In most large organisations safety is touted as the ‘number one’ priority: the issue that transcends all others in the organisations search for perfection. As accident numbers fell it became increasingly difficult for companies to show that performance was improving through the traditional medium of falling incident rates.
The ‘safety differently’ movement was formed fundamentally out of frustration. A frustration borne out of the inability of safety to respond to the challenges of the modern world of work.
Safety has always been presented in terms of numbers: the lower the number the better and, if at all possible, aim for the nirvana of zero. This seemed to those who gathered in Melbourne in 2012 to be ridiculous. Safety had become the absence of something. Good safety was now measured as the absence of accidents. Our future seemed bleak…
Vision for the future
So, rather that construct a future based on a numerical outcome, a narrative was built around the current characteristics of traditional safety and building an alternative version that was more suited to current practice and thinking. This framework took the form of three principles:
- people are the solution, not the problem;
- safety is about positives, not about the absence of negatives; and
- safety should be an ethical responsibility, not a bureaucratic activity.
Traditionally, people are seen as a risk to control in organisations. They are controlled by limiting their choices and behaviours or by placing constraints between them and the actual work. People are responsible for all your problems and if we could only get them to follow the perfect systems that we have created then all would be well. What would happen if we saw people as part of the solution?
Why can’t we see that people are responsible for success far more often than they are involved in failure? They close the gap between work as done and work as planned successfully every single day and yet the only time work is examined or analysed is when things break down.
Safety cannot be about the absence of something but about the presence of positives or capacity of an organisations to operate within a framework that is resilient and capable of responding to change.
Resilient organisations do not invest in fine-tuning their lagging indicators of negatives (weak signals), but rather invest in identifying and bolstering their strong signals of resilience—the ability to keep harmful influences at bay without knowing in detail what those might be or when and where they might appear.
An over-burdening bureaucracy has been created in the name of safety. Not only does this do nothing to actually make work safer, it also creates a huge performance drag in organisations making them inefficient and cumbersome. Safety needed to return to being an ethical responsibility for those doing work. We needed safety and not liability management.
Making it a movement
Over the years this philosophy has gained ground both in Australia and now here in Europe. A view that sees these three principles as continuums and not simply binary statements – allowing organisations to position themselves where they are comfortable as well as charting a challenging route to success.
The discussions in a backroom in Melbourne 5 years ago have now become a movement.
We need a new era in safety, a new era where human beings create safety. Continuing to do what we have always done is not going to lead to different outcomes and it is unlikely that we can break through the asymptote on safety progress with them. We should not of course simply abandon everything we have done so far; much of it has been highly successful and productive in reducing unnecessary injury and whatever we do moving forward cannot be at the expense of increasing injury rates. But we must realise that that it will do little more than hold us steady.
New technologies may hold the answer but they also run the risk of introducing more complexity. But there are also other avenues that will allow us to govern safety differently.
This new era then calls for a form of governance that sends power over many decisions back to the shop floor, back to the projects. It realises that people exist as a source of diversity, insight and wisdom about safety, not purely as sources of risk. It calls for governance that trusts people and mistrusts bureaucracy. It will take time. We are part of a larger system that feeds the bureaucratic beast. But it is something that has to be done.
It is only right that the profession should examine and assess the tools that it has at its disposal and if these tools are no longer appropriate for the challenges that we face we must have the courage to leave them behind no matter how well they may have served us in the past and move forward with a different approach.
Anything less will see safety becoming increasingly irrelevant and marginalised as the industrial world moves forward and we will still be focusing exclusively on the negatives for decades to come, wondering why we have not made the differences that we all wish to make.
John Green has worked in the oil, gas, petrochemical, electronics, heavy engineering, construction and aviation sectors and has 38 years’ experience of industrial safety. He is currently the Director HSE for Laing O’Rourke Europe and Global major projects.
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