Letting Go of Safety, Differently

Letting Go of Safety, Differently

Criticisms  of the work of Robert Long and the Social Psychology of Risk (and “Safety Differently”), by people obviously frustrated with orthodox safety (Safety 1), include that it is: too “fluffy”; too academic; doesn’t come with a step by step instruction manual or checklist on how to implement it; and, there are no examples of where it has “worked”.  Unfortunately, being told exactly what to do by those who believe they are more righteous, omniscient and omnipotent, yet fearful, is the hallmark of orthodox safety.  It is the systematic, generic, mechanistic approach which has led to the myopic, punitive, KPI driven, bureaucratic embuggerance which we still call “safety”. Clearly the orthodox approach isn’t working and to really make a paradigm shift we must unlearn the old curriculum, challenge our worldview and learn to think more critically about humanising our approach to embracing and managing risk in the workplace.

Not many people take the next step beyond criticism and seek to learn more but of course there is plenty of evidence, training, testimonials and practical tools available if you visit the Social Psychology of Risk website: https://safetyrisk.net/new-social-psychology-of-risk-website/  

Whilst the language and semiotics of the labels “Safety Differently” and “Safety II” are not very helpful (see Safety-1, Safety-2, Safety-3), Sidney Dekker makes some good points for pondering in his most recent article (below): “I Am Not A Policy Wonk”. First published here: www.safetydifferently.com/i-am-not-a-policy-wonk/



I coined the term ‘Safety Differently’ in 2012. It was the header of an email I sent to a motley group of company representatives—from Laing O’Rourke, Sunstate Cement, Queensland Rail, Origin Energy and others. I had newly arrived in Australia and had been approached by them to help critically examine the sense of safety ‘getting stuck,’ of a pervasive compliance culture that no longer generated much progress.

In the email to invite them to a new round of discussions, I actually called it ‘Safety, Differently,’ with a comma in between—as in: ‘Safety, but then Differently.’ The term stuck, though not the comma. A book of mine called ‘Safety Differently’ was already in the planning (and the editors didn’t like the comma either). Since then, Safety Differently has become that book; it has become a film, a trademark, even a movement. Daniel Hummerdal, back then my graduate student, asked if he could use the term for a new website he was building. Of course, that was definitely the end of the comma, as website names are not punctuation-friendly. Thanks to his early efforts, you’re looking at that website right now. It has been, and is, a great platform for sharing ideas, inspirations, questions and successes.

One of the questions about Safety Differently or Safety II that many people find most pressing is ‘How do we do this?’ It is a fair and important question. It is a problematic one too, particularly when it comes from people who have only just listened to one talk, but who have never read a single word of what I, or Erik Hollnagel, or others in this space, have written. Having listened to a talk on Safety Differently, people can easily become impatient and keen and eager. They want to make the shortcut from excitement to execution. They want to immediately go from being inspired to seeing it implemented. They want to waste no time on (and don’t actually see the need for) any further investment in understanding the intellectual scholarship and moral thinking from which Safety Differently comes.

This is actually not the question

So people ask about Safety Differently ‘How do I do this.’ But what they really want an answer to is the question ‘What do I do now?’ What they really want is someone to tell them, because they haven’t taken the time to think it through, to study the ideas further, to show curiosity and discover the difficulties and adaptive triumphs of frontline work for themselves. They just want other people to tell them what to do. That is literally taking a Safety I mindset to a Safety II world. Of course, the ‘how’-to-get-to-Safety-Differently question is increasingly getting answered in the expanding menu of method options—from embedded discovery to micro-experiments, collective improvements, appreciative inquiry and more. But not the ‘what’ question.

Giving you, or anyone, the ‘what’ of the procedural steps, milestones and content for the implementation of anything (including Safety II or Safety Differently) would fundamentally negate what Safety Differently is. There is no intellectual shortcut into a simple procedure for the application of Safety Differently. If there was, it wouldn’t be Safety Differently. It would be Safety I. In Safety I, after all, you have to be willing to hand over your brain, your expertise, your experience, to someone else who has already written the solution for you. You don’t have to think, you just receive and apply. Follow the procedure, stick with the rule, do the checklist that someone else has filled with things they believe are important, so that you can see whether you’re on track according to their definition of that ‘track.’

The work of safety, or the safety or work?

Safety I has had at least 80 years to embed itself in how we organize work. Safety I has enjoyed decades to become a handmaiden of what we could call neoliberal organizational governance, in which workers are an interchangeable commodity—to be measured and held accountable for their loss of productive time (through LTI or TRIFR). Safety I offers safety professionals a ‘safe’ retreat behind mountains of bureaucracy and paperwork, so that they may be really busy with—as another student of mine, David Provan would say—the work of safety, rather than the safety of work.

At the same time, managers and boards enjoy the luxury to focus only on the moments of high drama in the Safety I itinerary: the incidents, violations, non-compliances, the drop or rise of injury frequency rates. These can be expressed in superficial and utterly math-illiterate ‘statistics.’ They fit nicely inside the five-minute presentation about ‘safety’ in a quarterly meeting. Safety I has learned to comfortably co-exist with the short-termism driven by competitive profit: show me low numbers of negatives—in fact, show me ever-reducing numbers of negatives—because otherwise I look bad compared to my peers and I might hurt the interest of the most important stakeholders of all: the shareholders.

Safety I, in a sense, has it really easy. It can ignore the subtle textures of everyday work, and the human reasons why it almost always goes right despite the obstacles and difficulties. It can afford to ignore the ingenuity and innovation that produce adaptations and finesses that actually get stuff done on the frontline. Safety I doesn’t have to really invest in understanding work, or what makes work hard.

Safety I instead uses carefully stage-managed ceremonies (such as the recent IOSH joining of the ‘Vision Zero’ campaign at the World Congress in Singapore). It relies on celebrations of conformity and affirmation (an award for the longest incident- and injury-free run in our fleet!). It deploys quiet rituals (a ‘safety moment’ before a meeting, as if saying a prayer; or a checklist-driven toolbox talk without much of substance for the work of the day). It communicates via banner-ready sloganeering (‘work safe, home safe!’) and charged rhetoric (‘if you choose not to follow this rule, you choose not to work here!’ When these things become entrenched in your organization, they are less a guide to action than a signal that debate has now ceased. Unquestioning submission is what matters, not reasoned assent.

An affair of the gut

This explains why Safety I never bothers to write any serious literature when it changes its program or the concomitant slogans—as it does often and without compunction (say, from ‘Zero Harm,’ to ‘Work Safe, Home Safe, Everyday’). It can do this because Safety I does not rest explicitly on any elaborated philosophical system. It never was given the intellectual underpinnings by any system builder, such as Marx or Freud, or by any major critical intellect, such as Mill, de Tocqueville, or Bonhoeffer. It doesn’t even have the scatterbrained brilliance of a Nietzsche or Kierkegaard. Unlike anything in science, the rightness of Safety I does not depend on the empirical demonstrability or theoretical justification of the propositions advanced in its name. Safety I is “true” insofar as it musters emotional appeal and helps fulfill the aims of the unholy mixture of interests it represents. Safety I is perhaps an affair of the gut more than the brain. It offers what Robert Paxton called ‘mobilizing passions’—not always overtly argued propositions, but rousing and available for leveraging and harnassing nonetheless.

Safety II actually does rest on an elaborated philosophical system—stemming from decades of scholarship in human factors, sociology, psychology, cognitive systems engineering, organization and other sciences; from centuries of enlightenment and the emancipation of human thought; and from millennia of moral philosophy and the development of restorative practices and accountability. Safety Differently replaces control with curiosity; it replaces prescription with participation; instructions with involvement; deference with diversity. Scholarship is appearing all the time: it probably gets written quicker than you can keep up reading it. This creates the increasingly elaborate and solid basis for empowering and enabling critical and innovative thinking from the bottom up.

Escape from freedom

So I am not a policy wonk. I am not in the business of writing procedures for the implementation of Safety Differently. I do not provide checklists that will assess the restorative nature of the just culture your organization may have. I cannot give you a course of treatment interventions to reduce the risk of your organization drifting into failure. For sure, I have written some books (like The Field Guide) that are more bulletized than others (like The Safety Anarchist). This way I hope to provide different ways and levels of access into the scholarship that drives the movement.

But giving you implementation procedures and checklists from the top-down would be the diametrical opposite of Safety Differently. To ask for the checklist or policy guide on what to do to implement Safety Differently, is to regress to a Safety I mindset. When you do this, in the words of Erich Fromm, you ‘escape from freedom.’ Fromm, a German social scientist of the Frankfurt School writing in the early 1940’s, argued influentially that freedom can be so frightening, so effortful, that many people seek the comfort of submission—submission to someone else who tells them what to do, submission to someone who tells them how the world works and what their place is in it, submission to a rule, a procedure, a checklist that takes the cognitive and moral load off their shoulders and supposedly does the hard yards for them. Given the time and place he was writing in, Fromm would know. So when you escape from freedom, you deny your professionalism, your insights, your innovations and adaptations, your understanding of the messy details of work, of the nuances and subtleties of what it means to get stuff done despite the rules, the supervision, the tools, the organization, the pressures, the resource limitations and goal conflicts. You deny yourself.

Safety Differently decentralizes and devolves decision power about how to do things safely to expertise, to the sharp ends of your organization. It asks how things should be done of people who do them every day. Safety Differently enables people, and sees them as the resource to harness. With it comes a commitment to the ‘view from below;’ a call to put justice over power; a humility and curiosity to discover how the world looks from the point of view of other people; and the self-discipline to halt judgment and develop explanations for why they do what they do. The scholarship underneath Safety Differently helps you see (and argue) why all of this matters. And as Nietzsche reminded us, if you know ‘why,’ you can bear almost any ‘how.’

Postscript: In an affirmation of how the implementation of Safety Differently rests fundamentally with those who do it, please have a look at the recent work by Mitchell Services, including their short film which you can view from this link: Mitchell-Services.

5 Replies to “Letting Go of Safety, Differently”

  1. The critics never make contact, never ask for example of working practice, never ask to understand the tools I use. Never write or engage with questions and never request or attend a workshop.
    Whilst I understand Dekker’s thesis, there are plenty of practical things, policies and strategies one can enact to humanise safety. Any of my client companies in Australia or OS (some over 10 years relationship) would give reference to that, these are present in my books (eg foreword to Tackling Risk from a client) and free materials and testimonials online.
    One of my clients recently used the SEEK tool for an incident investigation and would happily explain how it improved the way investigations are conducted.
    This idea that it is ‘fluffy’ says more about the critic because so much practical stuff is readily available.

    1. Its hard to even give away free books or get people to read short blog articles beyond the first paragraph and with a different lense, let alone hope they will seek to learn more.
      Of course calling it “safety differently” is going to imply paint by numbers safety but perhaps using Roman numerals instead.

    1. Yes, Dekker himself suggests we must completely change the language of safety and yet………part of me understands that they still have to keep this anchor (or should it be called a hook?)

  2. Similarly the language of S1 and S2 is problematic especially when it becomes institutionalized in the language of Resilience Engineering, OMG. Strange that one would want anew language and then brand with engineering as a metaphor???

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