At a recent conference I attended, there was a paper describing an attempt to “manage” the risks involved in rock climbing. This highlighted the desire of climbers to push the boundaries to demonstrate mastery over evermore seemingly “unsafe” situations. (Solo unaided, unsupported climbs reliant only on the courage, skill and wit of the individual climber?). This was a somewhat paradoxical example of a person deliberately putting themselves “at risk” and then looking to apply “safety” methodologies to improve his chances of survival, so they can take on even “riskier” challenges. It highlighted the actions that are crucially needed to deal with emergent dangers and problems and still survive. Inaction (stop the world – I want to get off!) is definitely not an option at the top of “El Capitan”. In such unstable, “risky” environments, anticipation and compensating actions / interventions are essential to ensure and maintain recoverable situations. (Resilience rules OK?).
This contrasts with the traditional view of “Safety”, where the expected “normal” state is “safe” and where actions can result in “failures” which make the situation “unsafe”. Here the “rules” (legislation, regulation, supervision, procedures and standards, etc.) are there to prevent known disruptions and interventions. So actions here can potentially cause problems and are not to be recommended – (if in doubt – do nowt?).
So in this context (inherently stable environments), where everybody is expected to take the “right” (prescribed) action, any other intervention is by definition an “error” which can be a “risk”.
So our traditional “Robens” (HASAWA), Health and Safety thinking, Legal and Regulatory systems are all aimed at preventing these failures and hence could be termed “Health and Safety I”
This is a great and necessary foundation, but it applies to actions which can possibly make perceived safe environments (e.g. domestic dwellings) become unsafe (e.g. by allowing flammable cladding on a high rise tower block?). What became apparent to me was that the rock climbing environment, (inherently unstable, “unsafe”) does not fit this traditional framework.
One clue might lie in the much told, (hopefully apocryphal) tale of a victim drowning in 3 inches of water because the Health & Safety, (“Work as Imagined”) rules did not allow the responders to wade in, without the proper equipment.
So top down Health and Safety (H&S I) I seeks to prevent any deterioration of the “safe” bubble surrounding an individual. This understandably aims at stopping responders putting themselves at risk. This is enshrined in rules, standards and procedures, and in current behavioural based safety regimes, deviations from which are not allowed and must be discouraged (sanctions, retraining, etc.) in any circumstances.
Here it is relevant to contrast the response of the much maligned NHS professionals at the Manchester Bombing and their response at the Westminster Bridge incident. Here it was all hands to the pump, throw away the rule book, commandeer people, facilities and equipment from wherever it’s available – whatever it takes. Here this response stems from the fact that medical professionals “normally” act in the “unstable” environment, where no action is not an option; and even if reacting to situations inevitably can sometimes increase the chance that a wrong action could be taken, but still, no action is certain to be a disaster.
But isn’t it this situation and the need to act to try to keep the unstable stable, which is the norm for medical, security, emergency responders and the armed forces. This requires an individual to be proactive, resilient, adaptable and resourceful, not just aware of the rule book and prescribed “work as Imagined” procedures, which as General Sun Tzu remarks, rarely survive first contact with the enemy!
So do we need to reassess and allow in our thinking and legislation in this crucial area, for two distinct situations?
1. Normally “safe” – where interventions must be controlled to prevent disruption of the stable status quo; and
2. Normally “unsafe”- where interventions are absolutely imperative to regain the equilibrium of the unstable status quo.
This leads to the conclusion that we need first to reclassify the environments to which traditional safety thinking / legislation appropriately applies.
At Grenfell for example it would have meant making a clear distinction between the professionals involved. H&S I, because it applies to the design and maintenance of a safe environment for the residents, still applies to the designers, builders and Regulators responsible in law.
Those responsible for managing the response to the emergency of a Tower Block fire, however, would be trained/encouraged/empowered to realise that this is an H&S II situation, where action is mandatory and must train and empower the responders to act on what is in front of them (“Work as done”), because no action is not an option. This requires more devolved and proactive leadership to ensure that the “red mist” is not allowed to replace rational decision making.
This distinction could then legitimately be applied to a range of sectors where people are deliberately or voluntarily exposed to and have to act in “normally unsafe” situations – this would include sporting activities, the Emergency Services, the Medical Profession, Police and Security services and The Armed Forces. Separating these out then leaves the existing legislation etc., still relevant and applicable to its historically intended recipients, Industry and the public.
Industrial situations often need both approaches. Here one needs to classify the environment in which the person is employed and trained to work. For example, office work would be considered “normally” safe, while offshore drillers take pride in their skills in managing a hostile environment – and are remunerated accordingly. Working in the normally “unsafe”, needs at least an adequate level of ”situation awareness” just to survive – and to realise, for example, that a natural desire to retrieve an unconscious colleague from a toxic or asphyxiating environment, can only add casualties and problems for the professionals.
This would then go a long way to setting right, the undeserved and negative coverage and criticisms of some of our emergency services in recent events. It highlights the way it can be seen that the problems to be fixed are with the system and the way we legislate, not with the people involved in trying to react. Recognising that these are H&S II situations, enables empowerment of these professionals, and does not just provide a basis for blame in hindsight. No action is more than not an option, it is totally against their instincts and motivation The “Good Samaritan Act” purports to protect well-meaning unqualified bystanders. Shouldn’t we recognise that we need this and more to protect the people whose job it is to protect us?
Acknowledgements – This think piece is a result of discussions and ideas from Al Ross, Ralph McKinnon (NHS), Dave Wales (Fire Service), Bob Pointer (ex-Police) and Gil Kernick (ex-Grenfell resident). I hope we can include comments and feedback on this think piece and if it gains peer support and is deemed relevant, together write a better, more formal paper, later in the year.