Safety Differently @ Laing O’Rourke

treesfrombelowWhat have you done to enable safety differently in your organisation?

In Laing O’Rourke we were very fortunate to have a leadership team that acknowledged our organisation’s health and safety performance had plateaued and were willing to explore and test new ways of working.   This was against the current industry approach to health and safety which we recognised as high in bureaucracy and overly controlling and sceptical in its approach to building trust amongst all levels of an organisation.

Our conversations explored a new philosophical approach to health and safety rather than trying to discredit the current one. This created a positive dissatisfaction with the current approach but didn’t dismiss the past. After all, the past was something we were preaching 2 years ago!

We followed this up with a framework that tactics could be built around and generated questions that go to the heart of the organisation’s approach to health and safety.

  1. Are people placed at the centre of the solution or are they seen as the problem?
  2. Do you measure safety as the presence of positives or the absence of negatives?
  3. Has safety become a bureaucratic activity or an ethical responsibility?

My advice about introducing these questions is to seek out those that will challenge, and look for debate and push back as indicators of people being engaged in the conversation.  This is an important part of the buy-in process and helps to shape the key challenges that the organisation will face in moving away from the long standing, traditional behavioural safety approach towards one that seeks to build success through engagement and trust. Seek out early adopters and immerse them in the conversations.

But be warned, as I was “what you learn cannot be unlearned” and you will not look at conventional health and safety the same again!

What happened and what have you learnt so far?
By far the most important lesson is to resist the temptation to solve all the challenges at a senior leadership level. It is more important to make sure decisions are placed with those that deliver the work and that they are trusted to make informed decisions about how the change should occur. Mistakes will happen and accepting this is harder than it sounds.

Don’t underestimate the power of metrics and how easily these can drag you back into what will seem as unhelpful conversations and distractions. Be prepared for blips and challenges and have a set of positive indicators that you can use to promote the important discussions and lift your conversations out of the weeds.

People really do get safety differently and the principles that underpin it.  The introduction of specific tools and forums applied in the field helps to reinforce transactional change and for this to be more than just a corporate philosophy and a back office transformational aspiration. Tools such as positive investigations, collective insights, focus on high consequence risk, micro-experiments and pit crews generate different conversations and tangible outputs.

Once that change starts to occur you start to realise that most of your existing systems and processes will need to be refined or overhauled to support a more adaptive approach. It soon becomes apparent that for safety differently to thrive the principles extend well beyond just making decisions around health and safety outcomes, they extend into the broader organisational culture which will ultimately either enable or limit the change process.

What advice do you have for other organisations interested in managing safety differently?
Consider your organisations maturity and appetite for innovation first. If there are clear safety performance and risk issues, put these to bed before commencing otherwise they could destabilise your focus.

Start slowly by asking curious questions that stimulate mature debate. Introduce your leaders to the possibilities and show them the approach of other organisations. Once you start the change ensure that the messages are delivered by the business to the business and hunt out stories of success.  Encourage leaders to take the message and successes to all your people, take it to your supply chain and take it to your clients. These stakeholders will certainly help enable change.

Storytelling and language becomes very important and those that can  relate their stories to how the future vision is coming to life are far more powerful and convincing. This takes time and it’s important to support and nurture.

Much of what you are doing will feel like uncharted waters, so tap into the safety differently network frequently to discuss your challenges.


  1. Ben Kirkbride Reply

    Welcome to ‘safety differently’ Tim. I believe this is your first post and ‘what an amazing start’! I particularly appreciated the language you used to describe the experiences, very powerful, something that should not be underestimated. Some great practical tips and hints as well. Looking forward to more insightful posts like this one.

  2. Ron Butcher Reply

    Thanks Tim. Very well said and you’ve raised some very salient points. I agree with your assessment on the transition. In my experience to date, what we’re embarking on is a major paradigm shift of revolutionary proportions that has to carried out in an evolutionary manner. I’m finding that the longer I pursue this path and the more I learn, the more I’m inclined to think of this not as “Safety Differently” but as “Safety Realistically.” Thanks again Tim.

  3. Kevin Jones Reply

    It is a very good post and we can learn a lot from Laing O’Rourke but they seem to be the only organisation that has applied safety differently concepts. The idea has been round long enough for a range of companies to have started down this path. Does anyone know of any others? From other industry sectors

    1. Daniel Hummerdal Reply

      Kevin, there are several organisations applying the concepts – for example in mining, oil&gas, aviation, chemical manufacturing, healthcare, energy and other industries. We will (continue to) ask them to share their experiences here.

  4. Duncan MacKillop Reply

    Excellent insights, but I am always reminded of the statement that “it’s difficult to get a person to understand something when their salary depends on them not understanding it”! In my particular field of road transport the Authorities have grudgingly acknowledged that safety performance has plateaued, but they most certainly are not willing to explore and test new ways of working.

    Your point on ‘unlearning’ is a critical one and one which lies at the heart of any attempt at encouraging new thinking and adopting new ideas. The experts in the old paradigm face becoming beginners in the new and with that change comes a significant loss of status which most people simply will not tolerate. It takes a huge amount of unlearning to swap from thinking that people are a problem to people are the solution even though it is blindingly obvious when given even a moment’s thought.

  5. Gary Wong Reply

    “Uncharted waters” in your last sentence, Tim, contains a powerful message. It means shifting the safety metaphor from railing a train down a linear track to a navigating a ship on a sea of uncertainty. You don’t know what waves, winds, flotsam, and jetsam are going to do so you must be alert to adjust performance, i.e., use a Safety-II mindset. The adjustment may even mean changing course and heading to a different port because a serendipitous opportunity has emerged over the horizon.

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