The found art of safety

file000884974361There is a growing movement in safety.  It is one that recognises that we need to approach safety differently if we are to make advances as a profession.  It is therefore inevitable that the discussion turns to education.  What should we be teaching safety professionals (old and new)?  Do we need different safety training for a different approach to safety?  For what it is worth I don’t think that better, more or different education for safety professionals is what is needed to transform our profession.

Two years ago I wrote the post Safety is in the Making.  In it I included the following ’12 most striking tendencies of safety professionals’ which captured the characteristics, not the knowledge, that I believe safety professionals should posses.  So to me the fundamental change that is required from safety professionals is our approach, not our knowledge.  For example, we need safety professionals that engage with people to help them come up with solutions.

When it comes to helping develop solutions, you may say that we already do this and it is called consultation.  But in my experience consultation usually involves getting employee input on an already thought out and and mostly developed solution (e.g. a procedure, new initiative, process, control etc).  The problem with this is that someone has already decided that the solution is the right one.  The person was usually an ‘expert’, maybe even a ‘safety expert’.

As an expert there is an expectation that you know what the right solution is.  How many safety experts or safety professionals are prepared to say ‘I don’t know what the solutions is’?  How many are prepared to say ‘I will facilitate the best possible outcome that I can by seeking a diverse range of perspectives’?  Because if we did say that, then why do you need safety professionals?  Why wouldn’t an organisation utilise people who are good at asking questions, listening, communicating, bringing people together, seeking out ideas?  Or maybe that is what safety professionals should be.  And in that case, why shouldn’t safety professionals come from all different walks of life?  Why couldn’t an artist work as a safety professional?

I am not saying that we don’t need formal safety education.  And for some people that may be a great way to develop their thinking and approach.  But I do have a number of issues with formal safety education.  One of my concerns is that it prescribes what a safety professional should know.  To me this goes against a safety differently approach.  For example, who are we to say that there is a standard way to investigate incidents.  Or that incidents must be investigated to identify root cause (or investigated at all for that matter).  Maybe there are different ways for dealing with incidents that better add value to the workplace.  The same can be said for risk management, safety management systems, auditing etc.

I also don’t think that having safety qualifications should be the only avenue or a prerequisite for a person to become a safety professional.  I am not saying that we don’t need subject matter experts.  Nor am I saying that a subject matter expert can’t be a safety professional.  I just don’t see why someone with an open mind and the ability to work with and support people can’t work in safety.  And if they are called on to provide advice in an area that they don’t feel that they know enough about then they say so, and help to find someone that can.

I was discussing my views on safety education (and other matters) with a colleague and the conversation turned to trust.  If I had to come up with words that I associate with safety they would definitely include creativity and trust.  And I think that trust has a big part to do with what makes a good safety professional.  Trust in yourself.  When faced with making a decision or offering an opinion do you look to yourself for the answer?  Do you think the problem over and come up with your own take on the situation?  Do you trust in your own ideas?  Do you trust that even if you don’t have an answer that you will be able to facilitate an outcome?  Or do you look externally to established methods and so called tried and tested approaches?  I believe that we need safety professionals who trust in their own ideas and don’t blindly follow methods and approaches that they were taught.

So if more, different, better safety education isn’t the best way to evolve our profession, then what is?  I wish that I had the answers.  Maybe we need to challenge people’s view of what a safety professional is and what they do.  Maybe we should promote safety professionals as being creative, solutions focused, out-of-the-box thinkers who enable success in the workplace.  If we could do this then we may attract new people to the profession and employers may look beyond safety qualifications when recruiting for people to work in safety.


  1. John Culvenor Reply

    Don’t agree.

    Maybe the random person in the street can tell you about the tax laws but I think there’s a better chance of getting it right by going to an accountant.

    Maybe your hairdresser knows what’s wrong with your car because they just happened to have the same problem but the mechanic seems more likely. Maybe the mechanic can do a decent hairstyle but the hairdresser seems more likely.

    It becomes a matter of probability as to who is more likely to help you with something; a person who has studied something (read, inquired, listened, talked, written, practiced, experimented, etc) which is what happens at educational institutions and then practiced in the field or a person at random.

    About safety, if you want to build a house on a steeply sloping site, will you ask someone with a “robust culture”, someone who can engage with your “values”, or will you just have a look in the yellow pages for a qualified engineer?

  2. David Skegg Reply

    Could not disagree more…

    A profession is defined by two principles; knowledge that is not normally available to the ordinary person, and adherence to a code of ethics.

    It is an arrogance to call yourself a “safety professional”, if you have never learned the fundamentals. Just ask yourself these questions, and they could not be more basic.

    What is a hazard? The standard says anything that could cause harm. Well, that’s everything, isn’t it? Properly, a hazard is a source of potentially damaging energy.

    What is “safe”? Properly, it is the level of risk you are prepared to accept at that point in time.

    Which is more important, the duty of care, or the standard of care? The duty is mostly a no-brainer; it either exists, or it doesn’t, but the standard is defined by the common law.

    These are not esoteric, academic arguments. They are fundamental, and you won’t find them in the short courses industry currently accepts as the basic qualification to be a “safety professional”

    So, it is not so much a question of how did we get there, but how do we fix it? If you take the Body of Knowledge project as one area of study, you get a glimpse of what a safety professional should study. Add that to physics, chemistry and statistics, and a picture starts to emerge of what we should be looking towards.

    Your post is not heading us in that direction.

  3. Ron Gantt Reply

    As someone who is a strong advocate for a safety body of knowledge and a safety profession, I really like this approach Zinta. I think what is identified in this post is the essence of safety differently. Traditional safety is so focused on concrete knowledge (i.e. hazards, energy, physics) that we miss the complexity of human interaction that is killing people. Take the NASA Challenger disaster – one of the most structured and robust risk assessment and mitigation processes was in place. Some of the most highly educated people in engineering, safety, and reliability, and it all added up to 7 fatalities. The thing was that it wasn’t that these people weren’t smart enough. It was that they didn’t know to ask the right questions. They didn’t know how to react to and interact with uncertainty. They didn’t appreciate the effect of organizational culture on their ability to perceive and construct risk.

    Yes, the safety profession needs people trained in the hard sciences, particularly engineering. But more importantly we need people like Zinta identified. It’s not about the hazards or risks, but how we interact with those hazards and risks and no body of knowledge I’ve ever seen even comes close to providing safety professionals with tools to address that level of complexity.

    1. John Culvenor Reply

      A body of knowledge on safety or any topic exists whether or not it has advocates. A body of knowledge is whatever knowledge exists, where-ever it exists. It is everything. In Australia there seems to be a view that all the knowledge can be put in one book which is a misunderstanding of some magnitude.

  4. Rob Hoitsma Reply

    I really like this post. I’m not an official safety professional but working in this field for a few years now. With a technical background and skilled in quality I started wondering why good designed systems and procedures in some cases lead to unwanted outcomes. That’s where I dived into the world of human factors and learned to understand why people act as they do. I learned to be curious and open in stead of telling what they did wrong and what measures to take. I also learned that talking about what went “wrong” is the most important “measure” to learn.
    I never had any problem with not having the knowledge. In most cases that’s easy to understand or colleagues fill that in. Instead, I can bring in new knowledge, that means, new ways of looking at the same things. I even experience that a lot of specific safety knowledge can be a barrier to make the next step. On the other hand: we would never have come this far without and I respect that! So, we should try to make the connection, instead of dividing both worlds.
    So, besides trust and creativity, I would like to add openness and curiousity as words to describe the world of safety.

    1. David van Valkenburg Reply

      Rob, the start of your reply says it all: not an official safety professional. Official in my mind meaning, not educated formally in the safety sciences. In that sense I’m also not an official one and I also think that the traditional safety education can be more of a hindrance than a resource in talking about safety differently. The education tends to be framed in a particular, more traditional way of looking at safety and that is difficult to bend towards trust, creativity, openness and curiosity. I’m also trying to use the available knowledge and have them look at the same things in a different way, for example using the principles of FRAM.

      1. John Culvenor Reply

        I doubt that ‘safety differently’ or even ‘safety a bit different’ is going to be given any useful propulsion in terms of magnitude or direction through an absence of learning about the topic.

        How about I run the Reserve Bank? That would probably result in ‘monetary policy different’ but I am not sure about ‘monetary policy different in a good way’.

        If improvement is going to made in the manner of the approach to the safety science and practice, and I have no disagreement with the intention or the usefulness of such a goal, but I think there is a distinct probability that the source of the improvement is more likely to be people who’ve studied the existing arrangements rather than novices even if they are well versed in another field.

        1. Ron Gantt Reply

          I guess the central question we must answer is – what is the role of the safety professional in an organization? I feel like if we answer that question then what the safety professional needs to know will be much more plain. For example, we all know what accountants do and what people who run the World Bank do, and that’s why we can make pretty consistent guesses as to what someone would need to know to be effective at that job. Is it possible to do the same with a safety professional?

  5. Daniel Hummerdal Reply

    I think most people echo Dr Culvenor’s sentiment that we want safety professionals with the best available knowledge to stand the best chance to bring about the safest situations possible.

    However, the idea of best practice and relying on experts has time and time again proven devious. Look for example at the Macondo well blowout and the Challenger (and Columbia) space shuttle disasters as Ron Gannt pointed out above, or the 2013 celebration of zero fatalities in the Australian mining industry followed by a relatively fatal 2014 (

    While we may momentarily come across islands of certainty/get it right, we seem unable to live with the idea that these can quickly be overtaken by waves of uncertainty and disorder – that they have an ‘expiry date’. From this perspective those who can engage diversity and creativity logically stand a better chance to generate relevant responses (no guarantee though) than those who are married to practices developed for yesterday’s need. Adapt or die.

    Furthermore, isn’t it the reverence for expertise that has lead us into a situation in which people (with their strayed hearts and minds) are the problem? Isn’t it likely that the belief in best practice (the line in the sand) has contributed to the criminalisation of ‘human errors’ and the proliferation of legal safety cases, and the intensification of compliance paralysis? Point is, the pursuit of the ‘one best way’/Taylorism/scientific management is not a value free project, but is built on assumptions/values/ideas/ideals that have far reaching psychological/sociological/political and cultural consequences. While we may have set out with the best of intentions what has followed is a situation which few are happy with.

    Of course, we may hope that it’s just a matter of time before we get it right, or fix sufficient number of problems, ie that we need to try a little harder with the solution that brought us here in the first place. And this may very well be the case! But many people have doubts that this will actually lead to any form of sustainable progress. Where/when the point is to shift to a new ‘place’ to think and act from is probably more a subjective contemplation than a debate on a website.

    If I understand Zinta correctly, she is not arguing against knowledge or experts, but for the necessity for safety professionals (whoever that is?) to think outside the box, between the lines, connect the dots, to be more innovative and adaptive.

    When we are challenged by complexity, change, and uncertainty we can a) try harder and build more reliable/robust solutions on tested and validated principles – to push through. Or b) adapt using the same sources/aspects as our challenges seem to be made of (complexity, diversity and creativity).

    From the perspective of the latter option, science, standards and principles are but one source to overcome and not ‘The source’ to which safety professionals need to be subjugated.

    1. John Culvenor Reply

      About problem solving, based on some experimental research the situation that emerged was as follows:

      – domain specific knowledge is not linked to productive divergent thinking; that is the development of potential solutions to a problem; but

      – domain specific knowledge however is linked to productive convergent thinking; that is which of these ideas might be useful.

      Hence if you want divergent ideas on a topic then asking people at random is not a bad idea. But they won’t know if they are any good.

      People can also be taught to be more fluent at divergent thinking. Thus if we want new solutions that are likely to work within a domain then a way forward is to teach those with the knowledge of that topic how to be better at divergent thinking.

      1. Daniel Hummerdal Reply

        Thanks for this John! Seems perfectly in line with what I’ve come across on site. Maybe you can help explain something I’ve thought about re this:

        If for example we’re concerned with a welding safety issue, is welding the domain, or safety? Or both somehow? Do/can/should safety professionals contribute with the divergent or convergent thinking to enable better solutions? Or both perhaps?

        1. John Culvenor Reply

          Hi Daniel, I’d say both. The domain of interest for my research was hazard management. I don’t see any reason for the principles not to extend. In convergence there should be a refinement of ideas so that they can be practically implemented. In welding for example both the knowledge of welding, plus the knowledge of hazards and their effects should be useful in this endeavor. Almost anyone can make some contribution to the expansion of possibilities but only those with the domain knowledge know enough to filter the good from the bad or develop the 1/2 ideas into workable ones.

  6. Rob Long Reply

    Daniel, for me it is the methodology, knowledge and activity of safety (as historically determined) that is problematic. I observe people in safety calling out for things to be ‘different’ then retreating back to engineering, regulation and control-focused foundations to tackle safety. There are numerous labels applied to safety differently but at its source there is no difference, the fundamental anthropology/ontology doesn’t shift. The constant focus on ‘fixes’, controls, hazards and counting injury is a distraction from understanding risk and safety as a ‘wicked problem’. The fundamental psychic mechanism of safety turns on itself, particularly when it pursues perfectionism or making the uncertain, certain. Rather than a ‘found art’ of safety, there is really no sense in the sector of aesthetics in safety anyway. Safety has a long way to go before it will ever be different, particularly as it rejects the social sciences and continues to view safety as a mechanistic process.

  7. Jan Peeters Reply

    Hi Zinta!

    I think your post indicates an interesting direction, however I can understand John’s concern about too much focus on the “fluffy” side.
    For me much lies in the definition of Safety Management ;
    I like the quote of Peter Drucker about Management;
    “Management is about making people capable of joint performance, making their strengths effective and their weaknesses irrelevant.”
    If you see safety as an outcome, the management of it is going to need to enable people from different areas to achieve joint performance so that safety can happen.
    I see this as a socio-technical problem, where of course you need to be aware of the technical aspects, but as you indicate, the social aspects matter a lot too.
    Traditionally most safety professionals came up through the ranks as technical people, and they tend to see problem-solving as a mechanistic process.
    Most importantly the rest of the organisation usually does too, as a result the safety professional needs to be perceived as technically competent before (s)he has any credibility.
    However, in a complex socio-technical environment, it is sheer arrogance to believe that one individual or even a safety department can understand all technical and ergonomic aspects of the operation. Especially if you are not an operator yourself.

    This is for me where the social part of safety comes in;
    First of all you need to be skilled in communicating effectively with other people to understand their complex technological/ ergonomic problems (identifying the right problem is an art in itself).
    Then you need to be able to facilitate problem-solving with those people so that the right problem and the optimum technical solution are identified. (again, sheer arrogance if you think you can do this from your cubicle by yourself).
    And finally you need the ability to foster collaboration, influence mind-sets and effectively communicate these solutions with management so that concrete actions happen.
    This is what a lot of people don’t get; even if you get the technical side totally right, without the ability to persuade/ sell this solution to management so that it is enthusiastically implemented, your efforts will not improve safety one bit.
    I think this calls for an additional toolbox, a “social toolbox”.
    I agree totally with Zinta that this aspect of safety professionals is underdeveloped. However most of them learn these aspects on the job, by trial and error.
    I think their effectiveness can be improved a lot by explicitly aiming to help them on the social side of Safety management alongside the technical side.
    Topics that come to mind are;
    – How to run effective and productive safety meetings. Facilitation skills, Decision-making dynamics
    – How to identify and overcome mental biases in problem-solving
    – How to generate consciousness around safety issues and “sell” safety solutions
    – How to effectively communicate around safety and safety solutions (or “how to influence and make friends in safety management”)
    – What is management commitment, why do you need it and how do you keep it?

    Anything else you can think of?

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