Safety divergence

right wrongA recent photo posted on LinkedIn featured a hi-viz vest with a transparent pocket bearing the words “Why I work safe” above it. The idea is that individuals can put photographs of their family / children / cat or whoever is meaningful to them as a reminder to keep safe at work.

This has resulted in a number of comments from people liking or disliking the idea. This in itself is nothing exceptional. Such disagreements and debates are often fertile environments for learning and exploring and should be encouraged. What is interesting here, though, is just how polarised the views are. We’re not talking about some mild disagreements about semantics or approach as is often the case in other such debates, but radically different positions. This was demonstrated beautifully by two adjacent contributions. “Love this!” was followed immediately by, “This should be illegal.” The latter was supported by someone else chipping in, “I agree – it’s sickening.”

This captures in microcosm the identity crisis that safety management is currently going through. Whether you classify this as growing pains, mid-life crisis or dementia on-set will depend on your view of how mature safety management is. But there is a significant schism occurring. This is not about variations on a theme, but about entirely different fundamentals underpinning our approach to safety. How do we get from ‘love’ to ‘illegal and sickening’ over something that many people would think is fairly innocuous? This divide is (simplistically) separated into new and the old thinking – the ‘new view’ vs the ‘old view’, differently vs traditionally.

Whatever your views on this particular issue, we must recognise that such a wide divergence across industry will inevitably become problematic in its own right. Employing safety people from different sides of this divide can lead to conflict and confusion that has the potential to manifest in hazardous ways. Contractors moving between client sites can more easily adapt if there is at least a general consensus about the way to manage the work. Radical differences will cause problems in the workplace, harming the very people we purport to be supporting.

It may be that such a disruption is necessary to make progress. This has been the case in many other industries. Some may say that change has not always been for the better, but safety is not one of those areas we should look back with fond nostalgia at the way things were done in the past. History does not treat safety performance kindly. There is no doubt that our workplaces are far safer now than they were decades ago, but there is also no doubt that there are still too many serious injuries and fatalities and their general downward trend appears to have slowed, stopped or maybe even reversed. As is often said, the thinking that got us here is not enough to get us to the next step (or insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result).

New does not always mean better and change can be hard. Some theories may not stand up to scrutiny but new is here and it isn’t going away. Safety attracts many passionate people determined to do what they firmly believe is the right thing. In such an environment, significant differences have the potential to become quite caustic. As per the example above, I am beginning to see the views on each side becoming more and more entrenched as advocates dig in preparing for a philosophical battle. This is unfortunate because it drives unnecessarily binary thinking and black and white positions in a world of grey. It is also somewhat ironic because many of the ‘new’ thinkers have been at pains to point out that, while there are aspects of safety management that seem to be plain wrong, a large proportion of the two views is complementary, not contradictory. John Green gave an excellent metaphor of an overweight person deciding to run a marathon – weight loss is needed first followed by fitness. The goal will not be reached without both and they need to be done in that order. But some aspects of fitness contradict the weight loss component – eating more to fuel a high exercise load, for example. Traditional safety has provided the weight loss and new safety is about the fitness. There is no need to ditch everything we have done in the past but blindly doing more of the same is not going to lead to progress.

How do we deal with the potential for this change to be problematic? I would encourage everyone in safety to minimise the inevitable fallout of the coming disruption by:

  • being open-minded about change
  • recognising the areas of overlap
  • applying the same sceptical challenge to existing practices as to new and different ones
  • thinking beyond good intentions to critically consider actual outcomes.

‘Disruption’ is the main business buzzword theme of the past decade. Perhaps as a group, those of us involved in safety can put aside entrenchment to navigate ours safely – which is what we are here to do, after all. Because unlike Uber, Airbnb, Amazon and their ilk, when we talk about disruption leaving blood on the floor, ours is not metaphorical.

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