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November 23, 2015

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Safety Differently

Safety Differently: “Safety is broken” says John Green

The HSE Recruitment Network has partnered with SHP to deliver an engaging and evolutionary peer forum and roundtable discussion, to illuminate and explore the Safety Differently strategy that John Green developed during his time in industry with Laing O’Rourke in Australia, alongside Sidney Dekker and other thought-leaders in the health and safety management arena.

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This article provides a summary of the key points and the core principles that form the basis of this ‘next-gear’ approach that John is driving across Laing O’Rourke’s global project portfolio and corporate executive leadership, as well as some of the ‘counters’ from contemporaries here in the UK that arose from the forum. We remain confident in the consensus that the topics raised will fuel further debate, and we look forward to a continued dialogue on the immediacy of these issues in the contemporary health and safety space.

“Safety is broken.”

This was certainly a startling opening statement from John who has spent 38 years on the ‘frontline’ of health and safety management in high-hazard industries. What has led to such an emphatic declaration from someone that should be one of safety’s staunchest allies?

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You certainly can’t argue with some of the facts and data that is being used to point an accusatory finger in safety’s direction by the prosecution: John Green, HSEQ Director at the third largest construction contractor in the world (CN Top 100 2014), industry veteran and Laing O’Rourke stalwart of 8 years and counting.

John states that there has been “no decrease in the fatality and serious injury rate over the last 15 years” in the construction industry, and furthermore that there is “no correlation between low-level AFR’s indicating Major Accident Hazards”.

These realisations have led John away from the ‘Holy Grail’ and the oft-echoed battle-cry of contemporary health and safety practitioners ‘Zero-Harm’ (or ‘Mission-Zero’ ‘Target-Zero’ or any of its other myriad lexical incarnations). This represents a brave and bold move for a major construction contractor in the current climate of increasingly ‘safety conscious’ clients.

However, why do we persist with the same outdated principles and approaches to H&S management? As a wise man once said: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.”

This obsession with the ‘Zero-Harm’ mantra has led to the dangerous assumption within safety circles that: “the absence of one element means the presence of its opposite.” In the context of what’s up for discussion here, this leads you to the logical conclusion that: “good safety is the absence of accidents.” However as we have seen, low-level accident frequency rates provide no indication of your next major accident hazard that could be lurking just around the corner.

In fact, a study of fatality and accident rates in the Finnish construction industry over 15 years has shown that the fatality rate in the construction industry increases when the accident frequency rate declines.

So what does this mean for our established attitudes to health and safety management in these high-hazard sectors? Clearly a: “paradigm shift in safety management” is required to address the deficiencies and discrepancies in our perception of the effective and efficient management of risk.

Consequently, John has developed ‘three paradigms of change’ to champion this cause and transform the ‘old-world’ conceptions that:

  • People are the problem
  • Safety is the absence of negatives
  • Safety is a bureaucratic activity

and towards the ‘new-world’ order that:

  • People are the solution
  • Safety is the presence of positives
  • Safety is an ethical responsibility.

After all, if people get things right 99% of the time, then surely they can only form part of the solution and not part of the problem? Offer them a choice and involve them in the decision-making process and you will move your organisation forward with an empowered and engaged workforce.

Let’s move away from the bureaucracy surrounding safety and move the psychology of safety perception away from an obsession with numbers. As we explored earlier: safety performance gets confused with accident rates. If we feel compelled to have to measure something to alleviate our concern that safety is continually improving, why don’t we make it something else? What would that target be, or perhaps more pertinently, would there be one?

If you’re an experienced health and safety practitioner reading this, then I’m sure you have no doubt this represents at the very least a ‘paradigm shift in safety management’, if not total anathema and departure from all rational reality in structuring your response to managing safety related risk in your respective industries.

But let us be clear, John has nothing but the utmost respect for the pioneers and principles that have led so far to the juncture at which he now finds to be safety managements current crisis point. In his own words: “We couldn’t be doing what we’re doing now in terms of ‘next-gear’ without the previous ‘zero-harm’ initiatives.”

He is also indicative that he isn’t expectant of this ’Safety Differently’ strategy proving immortal in its application, and would dearly love someone to be standing in his shoes ranting and raving about the abolition of the ‘Safety Differently’ agenda and its outdated and antiquated principles in 20-30 years time.

However, one thing is clear for John in ‘The Stormy Present’ though: it is time for change. Evolve or become extinct. We need “an increased sense of safety from those who stand in the way of risk”. Empower your employees, engage your organisation and engross your stakeholders, within and without. It’s time to reinvigorate the dialectic.

What John is suggesting is neither simple nor straightforward in its approach and application: it will engender division and it will encourage debate. In fact three of the most immediate concerns and counter-arguments have come in the following forms:

  • If we move away from ‘Zero-Harm’ as an achievable aim, we are immediately accepting a level of harm that we are prepared to inflict on our workforce and our supply chain. This is inconsistent with our ethical approach to managing risk as an organisation.
  • From the perspective of the end-client, we would find it difficult to openly advocate a system of safety management that deliberately departs from measuring performance with metrics and does not ascribe with our designated aim of achieving ‘Zero-Harm’ to the workforce engaged on the delivery of this project. How can you align this safety strategy with the expectations of the end client?
  • If your focus is on the prevention of Major Accident Hazards, which you hope to achieve with a wholesale focus shift from low-level accidents, and which you propose to no longer measure as a result, then how do you prevent a surge in incidents of this nature? Is a pandemic of these incidents not in some senses as disruptive and undesirable as a single Major Accident Hazard?

But John has been very clear in his convictions…he is not dictating how or what to do to drive

this agenda in your organisation, or remaining obstinately adamant that this is the only methodology to move things forward. He is merely presenting and requesting that we consider managing safety differently.

If we don’t stop perceiving safety in the negative terms of its current terminology and drive its inclusion in the ethical agenda of activities and actions we will never come any closer to making the gains that we all desire in safety performance.

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Safety Diagnostics as a Leading Measure for Construction Safety Planning | Safety DiagnosticsClinton HornRichard CarterMick DayNuno Silva Recent comment authors
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Loren Murray
Loren Murray

Such a pleasure to hear about John’s work. He made such a tangible difference in Australia.

Dominic Cooper
Dominic Cooper

Well Said

Ken Ash
Ken Ash


I like the three paradigms of change

Get people to own safety and get their own levels of risk to match the basic level of cover

Would love to assist especially with the online trials of sub contractor control and discovery of safety online

Andrew Sharman
Andrew Sharman

The ‘New View’ articulated here is one we very much subscribe to. The tide is turning, so the question to practitioners now needs to be “which part of the wave do you want to be riding?”

Christopher Ward
Christopher Ward

Yes I done my 40yrs in the profession and the outcome. Build on success with the people that matter on the frontline. And for those at the top get them out there talking with their people about positive h/s. And measuring leadership engagement is a much more simple, less resource intensive metric too.


Every time someone tells me that all accidents are preventable, I ask “and how many £m are you going to spend to prevent the next paper cut?” Usually goes rather quiet.


I agree wholeheartedly with this approach, but have to take issue with the comment that contemporary health & safety practitioners
champion “Target Zero” or “Zero Harm” initiatives. In my experience these are thrust upon us as corporate ambitions set by a board
of a PLC that are looking to impress their shareholders. I think most contemporary practitioners are aware this is a shallow approach
and that a proactive management with risk profiling, employee engagement and leading indicators etc is a much healthier approach.
But it needs senior safety leaders to influence this, as John Green is looking to do here.

Nuno Silva
Nuno Silva

I agree with your comment. It is difficult to explain that we are “accepting” a result other than “zero accidents”… but that in itself is unrealistic… an accident by definition is an unplanned event.. how can you ensure that something unplanned does not occur? Well, start by having informed, aware and alert personnel that care for each others safety… invest in on-the-job training programmes in hazard identification, at first, and then going into industry specific detail as the programme progresses… I only have 15 years experience but I have found that when the workforce TRUELY understands the reason for the… Read more »

World’s 3rd Largest Construction Company Dumps Zero • Safety Risk

[…] at a ‘Safety Differently’ forum, attended by Sidney Dekker and other “thought-leaders’ (see full article here).  John Green, HSEQ Director of Laing O’Rourke, is quoted as saying “safety is broken” […]

Craig Brown
Craig Brown

i would like to sit down over a pint and discuss this, so refreshing to hear, I could throttle some so called safety professional’s who just blindly follow dogma. My membership card for IOSH states “challenge and change” not zero bloody harm.

Mick Day
Mick Day

Why oh why do we yet again hear the blindingly obvious and the repeat of the same messages delivered by others decades ago.

To many Directors and So called professionals standing on a box spouting the same old.

To much time,effort and resources wasted. The solution is to improve quality in all that is done in pursuant of performance excellence, it’s not the Health & Safety that needs fixing….. It’s the Quality of people, training, Risk Assessments etc. that need fixing

How many more over egotistical safety people do we need to still tell us what is so obvious….,,,,,,,,,

Richard Carter
Richard Carter

Safety not so different after all? I saw the “Safety Differently” article link and went to it eagerly – “what can I learn?”, I thought. Sadly, I was left somewhat underwhelmed. First things first, John Green is no doubt massively experienced and knowledgeable, and many of us could certainly learn a thing or two from him. However, in my view, the article simply rehashes a lot of things that have been known for a long time by many in the profession. It also presents some issues as being black or white, whereas in reality most things actually require a balanced… Read more »

Clinton Horn
Clinton Horn

I agree and support your comments in this debate. What John is proposing really is nothing new but the problem as I see it, based on my own experience thus far, is that there is all to often very little, if any, visible, energetic and committed leadership (by company LEADERS) actively driving John’s (and others over the years) approach to risk management and thereby “living” the values and ethos of such an approach. I don’t believe for one second that company leaders are not aware of what John is “tabling” across the industry so the real question that needs to… Read more »

Safety Diagnostics as a Leading Measure for Construction Safety Planning | Safety Diagnostics

[…] future.  John Green HSEQ Director at Laing O’Rourke commented in his recent  Webinar  Safety is Broken, “A paradigm shift in safety management” is […]