Darwinian Safety

file0001003212816There is something absolute about accidents. The loss, the destruction, and the irreversibility of it all – it’s clearly not what was intended. This unwanted character of accidents allows, affords, or even encourages a binary understanding of safety. Either things are safe, or they are not.

So when bad things happen, it makes sense to pull back, to constrain, to establish tighter control over what has failed. As if we only stay away from danger, if we use more caution, then we can rest assure that the accident will not happen again. Most efforts to establish safety remains driven by this simple principle: stay away from dangerous stuff!

This is problematic for at least two reasons:

First, dangers are everywhere. Sociologist Ruth Simpson argues that while we may sometimes conclude that dangers are present simply by observation, dangers can also develop suddenly (like bombs or earthquakes), invisibly (like gas or radiation), incrementally (like toxins in food), or lie hidden and dormant (like aneurysms). And in a world in which things are increasingly interconnected, and in which there is a fast pace of technological and social change, dangers may develop into harm in unprecedented ways. To conclude that we are safe, to think that we have got things right, thus per necessity involves some (probably often unconscious) disregard for how things may go wrong. The point is that doing things the ‘right’ way is no guarantee for safety.

Second, as people react to accidents, and as they engage in a binary approach to things being either safe or unsafe, they trade away the complexities and grey zones. As we step farther away from where accidents could occur, we simultaneously give up a space which may be ripe with innovative and better ways of doing things. Safety through (excessive) caution stifles creativity: People are turned into procedural pawns, following ideas that someone in an air-conditioned office far away has thought up to be the correct way to do a job. This way, fantastic resources go to waste – experiences, ideas, up to date expert understanding. This way, organisations become inflexible, they start living in the past, and they give up the opportunity to be the best they can be.

As written by Charles Darwin at the end of 19th century “In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment”. But instead of applying more intelligence and more collaboration to adapt wisely when it comes to safety, the traditional response is to use brute force, or impose old solutions more frantically.

We need to open up the way we engage with safety. We need to allow for more variation, for innovation and for creativity. But not by discarding what we have learnt so far. We need something which can be described as ‘informed variability’, or ‘disciplined plurality’.

Variability or pluralism is essential for successful adaptations – we need fresh perspectives, to try new things, to seize opportunities. But discipline and keeping others informed is important too. We need to make sure that such initiatives are thoroughly shared and communicated. We need to invite multiple viewpoints about such developments. By embracing plurality, complexity, and adaptive capacity within our organisations, we stand a better chance to meet such challenges in our environment.


  1. Sean Welsh Reply

    Great perspective on a complex issue. Lord Robens position on prescriptive verses performance based legilstion was based on the same philosophy and why we changed the legisltaion to reflect his recommendations in thefirst place, sadly we revert to old practice to quickly through ignorance and apathy. Your article sums up Robens philosophy beautifully.

    My challenge working with in large organisations is getting policy and principles in place that allows innovation to thrive but eliminates those practices, products and equipment that have been identified as the cause of an incident. Again sadly, we as a safety profession often get it wrong during the investigation process and a resulting policy is made based on misinformation and conflicting drivers that are sometime self serving.

    Our role as safety professional is to always be challanging what we do and looking for new and better way of elininate and/or mitigating the risk of hazards we identify not to enter into knee jerk reactions that often result after an incident. My belief is that we should alway ensure that hazards and risks are managed by those that have the greatest influence, however, this does not simply mean the person holding the purse strings but everyone one at every stage of the process. Our challenge is how to we get every person at every stage to accept that they have a role to play and can make a difference and all which starts with the way things are designed!

    Great article that is very thought prevoking.

    1. Daniel Hummerdal Post author Reply

      Sean, creating organisational interest and commitment to these thoughts is ndeed challenging. And perhaps it is more difficult for those with the purse to buy into the idea, given that it would mean giving up control, (or enabling control rather than enforcing).

      I obviously agree with the importance of having a (more holistic) contribution from everyone in the process. Something that is perhaps becoming increasingly difficult in complex times, in which a ‘single action controls nearly nothing, but influences almost everything’.

  2. Steve Collins Reply

    Excellent approach of which I’d like to heare more.
    The author appears to create a range of safe activities within which one may operate, thereby allowing the experienced operator to make choices to accomplish the string of tasks. This operator, however, must have an overall understanding of the system of interrelated tasks, and be able to anticipate how each tasks affects the others. Like several strands of dominoes, tipping the first one over could effect several others, but may not effect all. Some strands lead to dangerous conclusions while others do not. Having that thorough understanding is key to managing the tasks safely.
    I look forward to reading how one integrates “informed vairability” into the workplace and training.

    1. Daniel Hummerdal Post author Reply

      Hi Steve,
      Understanding hazards and interconnected processes is important. But I believe this understanding is tricky to obtain for (at least) parts of the systems we try to manage. This due to the dynamic and complex nature of organisations and their environments. That’s why efforts to exercise top-down control quickly ends up in the back seat (no matter how well-read it is).A thorough understanding is more likely when we invite multiple viewpoints, when we are sceptical about our own current state of understanding.

      Stay tuned for more posts on this topic!

  3. Gavin Waugh Reply

    Daniel you will never be a politician – reality is not something that politician can understand
    Keep up the good works it is refreshing to read someone with similar beliefs to my own

    1. Daniel Hummerdal Post author Reply

      Thanks Gavin, I would love to see politicians embracing and explaining uncertainties, instead of making impossible promises that everything is going to be well. Perhaps it’s not a message that gives you lots of votes..

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