Informa Markets

Author Bio ▼

Safety and Health Practitioner (SHP) is first for independent health and safety news.
October 22, 2019

Get the SHP newsletter

Daily health and safety news, job alerts and resources

Safety Culture

Why minor accidents DON’T predict major ones

Over the last two decades, safety improvements across a number of industries have largely flatlined (as measured in fatalities and serious injury rates, for instance) despite a vast expansion of safety investment, compliance and paperwork.

factory floor

A typical factory floor riddled with daily safety challenges

The cost of compliance and bureaucratic accountability demands are mind-boggling with every employee working on average eight weeks per year just to be compliant.

It has also stopped progressing safety.

The case for doing Safety Differently

Safety differently,’ an approach developed by Sidney Dekker, is about halting or pushing back on the ever-expanding bureaucratisation and compliance of work. It sees people not as a problem to control, but as a resource to harness.

Today’s standard model of safety, systems are already safe and need protection from unreliable human beings? Sidney says that’s an illusion.

It’s not true that the only thing we need to do to make systems safer is to provide more procedures, more automation and tighter monitoring of performance. Emails from managers imploring people to stop making errors. Imploring people to follow the rules. Saying ‘if we just ask everybody to try a little harder, we’ll have a safe system’.

Sidney says what you need to do is to invert the perspective. Safety is not the absence of errors and violations. We need to see safety as the presence of something. Presence of what?

When you get into the messy details, what you see is under difficult circumstances people can still make things go right because of their adaptive capacity. Resilience is this people’s adaptive capacity. Resilience is the ability to bounce back. To accommodate change and to absorb disruptions without catastrophic failure.

Recent research back this up: the risk of fatalities and life-changing events hide in normal, daily routine practices.

Safety Differently: Making the ‘New View’ work

John Green, Health and Safety Director at AECON discusses what Safety Differently is and why he feels there is a need for change.

Heinrich: Minor accidents predict major ones

The ‘Safety Differently’ movement views accidents like the BP Deepwater Horizon as too much focusing on near misses instead of critical issues, and so finds fault in Heinrich’s idea that minor accidents predict major ones.

Safety should be rather an ethical responsibility for people, assets and communities, instead of a bureaucratic accountability to managers, boards and regulators.

Safety Differently doesn’t just want to stop things from going wrong, but is curious about discovering why things go well and helping organisations enhance the capacities in their teams, people and processes that make it so.

According to Sidney, organisations looking to excel at safety must do the following:

  1. Never take past success as a guarantee for future safety. The fact that this went right yesterday doesn’t mean it will go right today. Past results are no reason to be confident that adaptive strategies will keep on working.
  2. Keep a discussion of risk alive even when everything looks safe. Sources of risk may have suddenly shifted in ways that are very difficult to be recognised.
  3. Bring in different and fresh perspectives. Listen to minority viewpoints and take them seriously. Invite doubt. Manage to stay curious and open-minded.

What cultures do we need to embed within organisations and how do we implement them?

Work as imagined vs Work as done

Erik Hollnagel, approaching from a different perspective – health, points to a key distinction of ‘Work as imagined vs Work as done’ and how Safety-I is out of date and why we need to switch to Safety-II.

Safety efforts usually aim to eliminate or reduce unacceptable risk and harm. According to this definition, called Safety-I, a system is safe if as few things as possible go wrong. A problem with this approach is that safety management is based on evidence from random snapshots of failed system states.

Resilience engineering argues that safety should be viewed differently with emphasis on things that go well. According to this definition, called Safety-II, a system is safe if as much as possible goes well. Safety management and the understanding of safety should be based on a systematic understanding of how performance succeeds, rather than on how it fails.

According to Erik, Work-As-Done focuses on how people adjust their work so that it matches the conditions. Instead of only looking at the few cases where things went wrong, we should be looking at the many instances where things went right and try to understand how that happened.

We need to stop looking at problems in isolation. We need to stop using separate vocabularies, models, methods, organisational focus and organisational roles for each problem. This is the situation now with safety, quality, and profitability as examples. It is convenient in the short term but detrimental in the long term. We need to stop solving problems in isolation.

What caused a particular accident is not answered by listing things that would have prevented it. Erik founded the ‘Developing the resilience potentials’ idea digging deep into Safety-II, when a system is safe if as much as possible goes well similarly to Sidney’s ‘Safety Differently’ thematic but through different perspectives.

The Safety Conversation Podcast: Listen now!

The Safety Conversation with SHP (previously the Safety and Health Podcast) aims to bring you the latest news, insights and legislation updates in the form of interviews, discussions and panel debates from leading figures within the profession.

Find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Podcasts, subscribe and join the conversation today!

Related Topics

Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Dominic Cooper
Dominic Cooper
4 years ago

Well, here we are again! Safety Differently is dangerous, as it is largely unproven. I am all for de-cluttering procedures, and processes that do not add to safety on the ground, but simply fill some bureaucratic void or perceived need. I am certainly all for stopping Serious Injuries & fatalities (SIFs) as argued in this journal previously in 2014 & 2017. What is said here today about Heinrich’s Triangle is true: Focusing on the causes of Minor Injuries does not stop catastrophes or SIFs which tend to have entirely different precursors. Focus ALL your injury avoidance efforts at the top… Read more »

Nigel Evelyn-Dupree
Nigel Evelyn-Dupree
4 years ago
Reply to  Dominic Cooper

Mmm, turning a blind eye and expediently ignoring known known’s over the years sustaining a position of denial that fatigue has anything to do with more major errors, mishaps and accidents, on whatever scale, is not going to break-down the glass ceiling inhibiting progress either. “Work Exposure Limits” not just limited to animal vegetable or mineral – particulates and chemicals as, Biopschosocial suggests but, functionality in terms of preserving, conserving and restoring optimal and sustainable mental and physical wellbeing without addressing the repetitive stressors exhibiting in presenteeism, predictably foreshortening the working life-cycle of human resources, no further progress will be… Read more »

Scott Maitland
Scott Maitland
4 years ago

It’s about time we started looking at safety differently and I believe this is a way forward. I do believe that there is too much focus on failure rather than success and that treating people like idiots is a folly . How many times do we have to see signs telling us to ‘hold the handrail’? People keep people safe, not pieces of paper. I do though disagree with the statement , “Heinrich’s idea that minor accidents predict major ones”. He never suggested any such thing. Only a correlation in numbers and their relationship. It’s this urban myth , encouraged… Read more »

Daniel Rowlson
Daniel Rowlson
4 years ago

I can understand why under Author Bio no one has put there name to this. Heinrich as probably 99% of the readers of the article, and clearly not the author or editor pointed to the fact there was a correlation between minor incidents and the chances of experiencing a major one. For many practitioners this would be the foundations of culture – If you get the little things right, hopefully you wont have to deal with too many big things going wrong! In the UK (& elsewhere) we are fortunate enough to have the principal of SFAIRP – the reason… Read more »