What is Safety Differently?

Safety Differently is the name given to a movement within the safety industry that challenges organizations to view three key areas of their business differently – how safety is defined, the role of people, and the focus of the business.

The term ‘Safety Differently’ was first coined in 2012 by Griffith University professor and best-selling author, Sidney Dekker. Since then, the movement has continued to gain traction, and is now backed by its own research lab, along with multiple books, and a documentary.
How do we currently approach safety?

In order to understand the theory behind Safety Differently, we must first consider how modern organizations currently approach health and safety. Dekker argues that traditional safety thinking is underscored by three main principles.

  • Workers are considered the cause of poor safety performance. Workers make mistakes, they violate rules, and they ultimately make safety numbers look bad. That is, workers represent a problem that an organization needs to solve.
  • Because of this, organizations intervene to try and influence workers’ behavior. Managers develop strict guidelines and tell workers what to do, because they cannot be trusted to operate safely alone.
  • Organizations measure their safety success through the absence of negative events.

So is there a problem with this approach? Well, Dekker says yes. He says this line of thinking has led to a growing safety bureaucracy that is responsible for injury rates/fatality rates plateauing in recent times. And with such a heavy focus on low safety numbers, it’s possible that organizations are measuring and managing the wrong risk (Deepwater Horizon famously had a great safety record before an incident in 2010 that killed 11 people). As Dekker puts it, “if you keep people accountable for low numbers of negatives, that is what they will give you”. That is, organizations will find a way to underreport and reclassify incidents to fit the ‘Zero Harm’ agenda.

All this, Dekker says, has led to a world where people have become disengaged with health and safety at its core, where people fail to see its value. A common analogy for this problem is coaching a competitive swimmer. As we focus on teaching the swimmer not to drown (stay near the edge, wear a life-vest), we conflict with the overall goals of the swimmer. Rather than competency and common sense, we value compliance and control.
Safety Differently

Safety Differently flips traditional thinking on its head, and encourages organizations to grow safety from the bottom, up – rather than impose it from the top, down.

  • People are not the problem to control, they are the solution. Learn how your workers create success on a daily basis and harness their skills and competencies to build a safer workplace.
  • Rather than intervening in worker behavior, intervene in the conditions of their work. This involves collaborating with front-line staff and providing them with the right tools and environment to get the job done safely. The key here is intervening in workplace conditions rather than worker behavior.
  • Measure safety as the presence of positive capacities. If you want to stop things from going wrong, enhance the capacities that make things go right.
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