I was having a discussion the other day with a colleague about how Safety Differently fits in different organizations. Some organizations we’ve encountered are hungry for something new. They realize that the same-old safety approaches are not getting them the results they would like and are actively seeking a different approach. Obviously these organizations are ripe for a discussion about Safety Differently.
But what about others who, as some describe, are not as far along? For example, in my own company the majority of organizations that contact us are simply looking for help with basic regulatory compliance. How does Safety Differently fit in an organization such as that? As my colleague argued, and I’ve heard others take a similar argument, first we must use traditional approaches to get the organization up to a minimum level of compliance. Only then can we apply a Safety Differently approach and get results. To apply Safety Differently before this would be inappropriate and perhaps harmful.
A similar argument is found sometimes in those dealing with critical tasks that may lead to disastrous outcomes. In a situation where variability may lead to catastrophe wouldn’t an approach that embraces worker creativity and adaption be inappropriate? Would a Safety-I mindset be more appropriate in such an environment?
Now, let me start off by saying that people who I’ve spoken with who adhere to the idea that Safety Differently only applies to certain types of organizations and contexts are all very intelligent and well-meaning. They really do believe in doing Safety Differently.
That said, the idea that Safety Differently applies in some environments and not others confuses me. At a conceptual level, Safety Differently is not merely a set of interventions or tools. In safety practice we have interventions and tools that we apply in various situations that are appropriate or inappropriate depending on the context. Take training for example. Training is a very useful tool to enhance human performance for some skills and tasks and is wholly lacking for others.
Or take another example, a safety management system (setting aside the debate on the effectiveness of management systems as an intervention for the moment). Clearly some organizations have the resources and drive necessary to implement a safety management system, whereas others (i.e., small businesses) may simply not have the bandwidth to do so.
Safety Differently is not like that. Safety Differently is, if I may be so bold, a paradigm (or insert the word “mindset” if you’re not comfortable with the word “paradigm”) based on a worldview of how people organize to do work. Take one of the primary tenets of Safety Differently for example – people are a solution to harness. This is regardless of the problem we’re trying to solve or the environment we are in. Of course we’re not saying that people will always have all the answers. Most workers have no real understanding of legal issues surrounding regulatory compliance. But workers always have expertise when it comes to work, and if those regulations involve applying them to work the workers will have a really good set of ideas on how to do that if we work with them collaboratively.
Now a set of interventions and tools follows from the basic tenets of Safety Differently and there are plenty more to be identified. But if people are a solution to harness, if we should focus on successful outcomes as well as failures, if we want to change the focus to understanding how work works, etc., I don’t see why this doesn’t apply in almost any organizational context.
Take the critical tasks example. Yes, we don’t necessarily want variability when disaster looms, but if we find variability shouldn’t we seek to understand that variability before simply correcting it? Wouldn’t the worker who literally has “skin in the game”, so to speak, have the most to lose by varying from the procedure? Could it be possible that they have found a better way to avoid catastrophe than those who are separate from the work environment? Imagine the message we send to workers by seeing them as a solution…unless their life is on the line, in which case we can no longer trust them.
Further, and perhaps more importantly, a Safety-I only approach to critical risks often ignores other factors related to work processes that induce the variability we see. Workers in tasks with and without critical risks have to balance competing goals and deal with scarce resources. Managing the complexity of these tasks, in addition to keeping themselves safe is the source of the variability we observe. If we attempt to eliminate this variability through traditional command and control means we ignore these external influences. Our solutions will erode against the continuous, but unseen pressures of normal work.
In the case of those organizations that are looking for basic compliance, the argument also appears to assume that there is some maturity model that organizations go through, from looking for basic compliance to, eventually, looking for Safety Differently. It seems strange and counter-productive if we build up the organization using traditional models in the beginning, only to have to unlearn them when the organization matures. Imagine the scene when one day you walk into the organization and you say, “Ok, you’re finally ready! Forget everything that I’ve ever taught you before this, because it’s all wrong!” I don’t think we could fault the organization if at this point they sort of feel like the child whose parents just informed him that Santa Clause is a myth – a bit betrayed. Not to mention all the old habits that you encouraged previously that you’d have to now break.
The argument that an organization that is “immature” from a safety perspective ignores the potential appeal a Safety-II approach would have. Imagine a small to medium-sized business that realizes it wants to begin to invest in safety after a period of no investment. Isn’t it plausible that an approach based upon understanding how work gets done and enhancing the capacity to achieve success would be more palatable to the organization than an approach merely based on forcing constraints on production?
Furthermore, in the case of regulatory compliance or of dealing with critical risks, the Safety-I approach would seem to have limited effectiveness primarily because it deals poorly with variability in work performance. Variability would be present in both compliance and critical risk operations, and if we limit ourselves to Safety-I interventions alone we are handicapping ourselves. We must remember that Safety-II includes Safety-I. If we come to compliance and/or critical risk operations with a Safety Differently mindset we bring a bigger toolbox with us, allowing for a richer set of potential interventions and, indeed, innovations.
Now, I do not want to say that Safety Differently is the only way to practice safety, nor that it is a “you’re with us or you’re against us” situation. However, I do think that the idea that Safety Differently does not work in such situations is premature. I do agree that there will be situations where applying a Safety Differently approach will be challenging, but in all cases I see far more value in the approach if applied successfully than any known alternatives. It seems like instead we should be having a conversation about how Safety Differently applies in these challenging situations. How would it look different in a “mature” organization versus an organization that is only looking for the basics? What about the difference between normal operations versus critical, high risk tasks? How would a Safety Differently approach deal with variability where variability could be deadly? These are all open and vital questions for the Safety Differently community to explore.
Note – Thanks to Daniel Hummerdal for help with the title and for very useful comments and critiques on early drafts of this post!