Safety Differently: What it is not
In the second part of our Safety Differently series, John Green, Health and Safety Director at AECON, looks at some of the challenges you may face when implementing it.
To read the first part of this article, click here.
When thinking about Safety Differently, it’s just as important to understand what safety 2.0 isn’t, as many critics and detractors hone in on individual aspects of the approach in attempt to discredit the whole. Change is daunting and its requires a sympathetic hand to guide organisations through this difficult transition.
It’s not just about successful outcomes
It’s about examining success and why organisations are successful most of the time, but importantly it’s not just about that. Safety 2.0 seeks to examine all forms of outcome, good, routine, unusual good, normal, accidents, incidents, near misses and disasters. So, while Safety 1.0 has its focus on unwanted, unexpected outcomes, Safety 2.0 sees the full range of outcomes as a way of improving overall performance partly because normality is easier to change or influence.
It’s not a fad or a flash in the pan
Because it has this substantial theoretical base, it’s not an approach that will disappear as a fad would. It might be at times unpopular or unpalatable to some but being based on some scientific foundations means that the opinions of a few critics are unlikely to matter in the long run. In fact, an examination of the current market would suggest that an increasing number of major organisations and regulators are actively embracing the approach.
It’s not academic clap trap
There’s a saying that nothing is as practical as a good theory and we shouldn’t apologise for the amount of theory that’s gone into this. All innovation starts with theory of some kind. Much of the criticism of the Safety Differently movement is that it lacks substance, form or data. While this may be partly true in terms of evidence that’s entirely due to the relative development of the approach.
No-one approaches safety with more scientific rigor than the Safety Differently community – and I would throw the same challenge back to the traditional practitioners – if you are relying on Heinrich, triangles or dominoes for your safety programmes then you are the ones building on sand, you are the ones in glass houses throwing stones. The absence of scientific testing in these approaches is simply breath-taking.
And there are metrics aplenty – but you might not recognise some of them. Critically however this is an approach that allows organisations to remain curious about what’s happening when people go to work, to be open to the possibility of surprise, and to see unexpected emerging trends from the interactions of complex interconnected work systems.
It’s not a replacement for Safety 1.0
It isn’t but it does challenge some of the fundamental principles that Safety 1.0 relies upon to operate. This approach is about both seeing things differently and seeing different things and while many aspects will be new and perhaps daunting others will require simply retooling existing practices for a different outcome.
It’s not about what companies or safety people currently do
“Oh we do that already”. If I’ve heard it once I must have heard it a thousand times. Oft said, but rarely if ever true, and oft said after a short exposure to the new thinking. This often acts to shut down conversation and progressive thinking protecting the existing way of doing things.
It’s not a better church than the Safety 1.0 church
This appears to have become a significant bone of contention and perhaps it’s inevitable that comparisons are made between the two approaches. What is not acceptable is that one approach is viewed as better than the other or one is right and the other is wrong. I remember when the original Safety Differently group met in Melbourne, we formed the view that we were creating a platform for innovation, development, curiosity and surprise. This was not to be a programme that became locked down to a specific set of processes but rather one where challenge, alternatives and progressive thinking was to be welcomed. If, however it has become as quasi-religious as the characteristics that we were trying to replace than we need to kick back against that.
It’s not just about safety
It’s about work and operational effectiveness. Rather than focusing constantly on accidents and unwanted events (which are actually ‘un-safety’) safety 2.0 has more in common with things going right and the promotion of effectiveness.
It’s not easy or Lazy
Having done this for the last seven years I can promise you that there’s nothing easy about it. What is lazy however is bimodal thinking, blanket rules and zero tolerance. This is not smart safety, its lazy safety.
Why is Safety Differently difficult?
It’s difficult because its different and it requires change – lots of it. Each of the groups below present their own challenges, in terms of resistance to change.
Most company boards are by their very nature conservative and risk averse and they see change as simply another unnecessary risk – particularly in the absence of any proof that change is required. They do however respond well to concrete examples that demonstrate the need for change and where that might lead to individual exposure or liability.
For most, that requirement to change manifests itself during a strategic inflection point, or a moment of crisis where it becomes apparent that the assumptions that the board has made about the organisation and how it goes to work are at odds with the facts of an unfolding event. As a result, many organisations choose to dip their toes in the waters of Safety 2.0 off the back of a serious event.
As an ex-regulator myself, I am always troubled by the sense of them and us that I get when I talk about my former employer. It’s almost as if regulator and regulated want different things when in fact both groups are after exactly the same outcome. Most regulation is now outcome and purpose driven, regulators having long abandoned the prescriptive approach. In the UK this clear out began in 1974 and gathered pace in the 90s but prescription is still to be found mostly due to our own inability to let go. Research tells us that around 70% of the rules that we have, and the associated costs of implementing them, are self-imposed.
Often a barrier to change are those that your organisation works for. It’s likely that they are bigger, perhaps more mature in terms of heritage and consequently more traditional in their approach. But even the biggest, shown examples of where a new approach works, will change their ways.
I mentioned earlier that I thought an essential part of this shift is our own ability to change. This is important because if we no longer see the absence of harm as being the only fundamental goal of our efforts but that our focus has to be on maximising what goes right then somehow, we need to shift our gaze from solely counting incidents to something else. If your view is limited to fixing things that are broken, then you’re going to be limited to constraining what happens. If, however you are looking to enhance the organisations performance then the opportunities are almost limitless. In fact, the focus becomes reducing the performance drag on the business by decreasing the volume of bureaucracy. This starts to sound more like commercial and business acumen than it does safety. This requires a different skill set and a different view of what it takes to be a leader.
Insurers, Unions and others
What do unions and others say when you start messing about with worker safety? Interestingly my experience is that the responses are varied, ranging from extremely curious to utterly ambivalent. On the one hand, unions are rightly concerned when you announce you are going to take away the reasonable employer-provided protections that seem to keep their workers safe. There is a tendency to hone in on aspects that the don’t like or haven’t completed understood. One such experience was when UCATT in the UK locked on to the “accidents are inevitable” phrase. More recently however the approach has found a number of allies in the organized workforce with some large Trade Unions arguing that rather than be obstructive a new approach should be welcomed. And what about the lawyers or insurers, how do they look at this? Again, our experience was that there is no substitute for sitting down with stakeholders, including lawyers, and being open-minded about their concerns. We explored and discussed all the pros and cons of changing these things about work. With reasonable safeguards in place, and a limited scope that specifically aims to improve how an organisation does its business and protects its workers, there really are few obstacles. This went for regulators as well. Organisations have a number of regulators watching over their operations. We found that the ones who were most closely concerned about workplace health and safety had also begun to understand that doing more of the same was not going to generate different results. They too were outcome focused. They, too, were keen to hear new ideas and explore different ways to improve safety results.
In Part 3, John will outline some things to think about. John was speaking at the 2018 EHS Congress in Berlin, in November.
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