There’s no IP in safety – Yet…

14678529062951616575918For years the safety profession has espoused that there is no intellectual property in safety. This was seen a positive side-effect of the black and white ethical stance of the zero harm movement.  It has also been the most over-used excuse by safety professionals for adopting their previous employer’s methods in their next organisation, along with ‘why re-invent the wheel?’ and ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.   As safety professionals move through our relatively small industry, adopting each other’s ‘best bits’ we are slowly becoming more and more consistent and reaffirming to ourselves that we – as a function know – what’s best.  This prompts me to ask two questions:

  1. Is consistency in safety a good thing? and
  2. Do safety professionals know what’s best?

Consistency in safety outcome (in a binary sense) is a good thing; after all we don’t want to hurt anyone. However, this is an over simplified view of the world in which we work, where in reality the way we achieve safe outcomes isn’t binary. We know that in reality, people are finding ways to work around the system to get their job done.  Demanding consistency in implementation of a safety management system is an unsophisticated approach, driven to make safety ‘easy’ for management to implement and budget for.   The problem with consistency is consistency.  So if we go back to the (rhetorical) question of ‘do safety professionals know what is best?’  While it is the safety industry driving consistency, there are a growing number in the industry bucking the trend.  It is easy for safety people to set binary rules and administer them. But not so easy to relinquish control, allow some free-thinking, host challenging conversations, try something different, innovate and potentially make a step change in how we go to work and positively influence the safety culture within an organisation. After all the safety ‘professionals’ don’t own the safety culture.

At Laing O’Rourke we are on a journey to make our safety management system more adaptive and engaging to stimulate thought, innovation and tap into a body of knowledge previously seen as a bureaucratic barrier to safe production.

Laing O’Rourke recently launched an updated safety management system which is open to everybody at The restructured system has been dramatically reduced from 91 procedures down to 41 and the focus is squarely on our high consequence risks and embedding our Next Gear principles.  The old system tried to cover everything for everyone – largely duplicating codes of practice, resembling a litigation management system rather than an ethical safety management system.  We don’t profess to have the solution, nor do we assume that the new system is perfect, that would be ironic.  What we have done is try to address the two emerging problems above.

The new SMS has non-negotiable elements that are intended to manage our Fatal and Severe Risks which is not uncommon in the construction and engineering industries. Everything outside of our Critical Controls for our Fatal and Severe Risks is set as a minimum standard, but we don’t mandate how that should be achieved. We want the people who are actually doing the work to be in control and to think differently and come up with a better, safer way. It is adaptive for different operations, contract types and complexity of projects, empowering teams to make the system work for them and not against them.

There are three additional functions that Laing O’Rourke’s new SMS platform has employed to help us tap into our people, our clients and our supply chain partners:

  1. A 5-star rating system – Each of the pages and procedures has a rating associated with it to assist us in understanding what works well and what needs improvement.
  2. Tell us what you think – At the bottom of each procedure we ask for feedback, let us know how we can improve, tell us what doesn’t work and share your stories of success
  3. Next Gear blog – We have started our own internal blog to keep the Next Gear conversation alive within the organisation and our supply chain, to continue to challenge our internal monologue. This is designed to be led by contributors that are not safety professionals.

We want your opinion and we value challenging discussions. These open channels of communication hold management to account, ensuring they are responding to concerns in a timely manner and actively listening to the workforce that can have innovative, new and different solutions to problems instead of burying the feedback and continuing down the same well-travelled, worn out road.

What’s next? Listen, adapt and progress with our people and partners towards an ecosystem where there is Intellectual Property in safety not owned but freely shared, where people are enabled to think differently to be better, safer and more productive.

What are you doing to enable your safety management system?


  1. Russel Skilleter Reply

    I have certainly been guilty of offering some of the trite expressions you reference but I certainly recognise that safety professionals do not have all the answers. In particular, your aim “to make our safety management system more adaptive and engaging to stimulate thought, innovation and tap into a body of knowledge previously seen as a bureaucratic barrier to safe production” is spot-on.
    Regards, Russel.

  2. craig power Reply

    Hi Peter
    Your approach is spot on – many of the majors are lack the courage and are afraid to go against the cut and paste safety methodology being used by many of our safety brothers. Very lazy, costly and error prone tick the box mentality.

    We should meet over a cup of coffee if your are in Perth !!

    Craig Power

  3. Mark Donnelly Reply

    “After all the safety ‘professionals’ don’t own the safety culture”

    I have been saying this for a while know…I also say “safety people do not own safety” and “safety as a roles does not ot should not exist” it is an invented myth.

  4. Barry Hemmings Reply

    Interesting thoughts here Peter. My congratulations to the folks at Laing O’Rourke for having the courage to adopt innovative approaches.

    In my view, the real opportunities for what the company has proposed rest within the 3 additional functions designed to support the system. Really simply, these functions (along with others that will grow in time) isprovide the chance to closely engage with your workforce in a robust and ongoing conversation about the relationship between the SMS and business.

    The challenge for us all is embed the notion that these conversations are not just considered as evidence that we have consulted. Instead (if well structured), these conversations can be the source of true business intelligence on matters of safety and risk.

    These approaches are alive and well in other disciplines too. Quality assurance and process improvement, strategy development and innovation. Even organisational development should be in the frame here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *