Safety Wars

The US election is currently stumbling towards some sort of eventual conclusion with accusations flying around based far more on existing, entrenched positions than on any set of rational observations and facts. If this sounds familiar to safety people, it may be because the whole world seems to be moving in that direction, or it may be that you’ve been seeing too many of the circular, us-versus-them arguments on LinkedIn and elsewhere about whose safety approach is best. These have become frequent and boringly repetitive, sometimes bad-tempered and certainly serve no purpose in taking industry forward towards better outcomes. In fact, they probably do the exact opposite. It has been pointed out that the safety industry is not terribly self-aware and this only serves to reinforce that view.

So, how did we get to the stage where seemingly smart and experienced people on both sides cannot reconcile their positions? I’m not expecting complete agreement – there is, after all, no right answer – but surely some sort of useful sharing and building on others’ thoughts and ideas is not unreasonable? Who knows, it might even improve things.

Here are some of my thoughts on how this situation has evolved that maybe might help people to pull back a bit and take stock of their views. It might not be right – just my observations. But if it makes some people think, then that will do for now.

For the purposes of clarity, I will use Safety I and Safety II to represent the advocating sides, while recognizing that some people claim that conventional safety doesn’t look exactly like Hollnagel’s Safety I definition and that Safety II is not strictly speaking the same as Safety Differently, HOP or any of the other more recent labels, but I’m lumping them all together here. Also (and most fundamentally), Hollnagel talks about Safety I and Safety II and suggests they should be complementary, not alternatives, so they shouldn’t be used to label sides in an argument. But, hey, I have to call them something and using ‘old’ and ‘new’ feels derogatory to the ‘old’.

First, some pet peeves about repeated themes in the argument that demonstrate people are not really being fully open to other views. Firstly, an insistence that Safety II is only about looking at success. This is simply not the case and this is quite apparent in any credible source of information. But no matter how many times this is pointed out, opponents seem to wilfully ignore the point and continue to repeat the same canard, suggesting it means we shouldn’t investigate accidents. Secondly are those who jump on the shiny-new-label bandwagon and present themselves as specialists, without really understanding the detail and the nuance that goes with some of the new thinking. They make misrepresentations that get absorbed into the general thinking, muddy the waters and contribute to that first issue. Finally, those Safety I proponents who argue that a Safety II approach is unfounded and doesn’t work, but also argue that “there’s nothing new here – we’ve been doing this all along.” You can’t have it both ways, for reasons that should be obvious.

After all that pre-amble, my thoughts are pretty straightforward and are based on the real-world application of the ideas, not the academic rigour with which they are explored or presented. Most Safety II concepts include greater involvement with, and trusting of, the worker; a deep understanding of the work; high quality learning from both success and failure and a recognition that people are fallible, will make mistakes and that response to that should be fair. There is a lot of detail around these concepts and others but, in practical terms, this covers most of it.

Good safety people over many years have done all these things. They may have been part of different packages, they may be labelled differently and they may not have been part of an overarching redefinition of safety. But, in practice, they have been done. So, when Safety I proponents say that there is nothing new here, I understand where they are coming from. As an example, my very first real working day (nearly 30 years ago!), included an initial introduction to human factors assessment techniques. Things have progressed a lot since then, but to suggest that a clear focus on the worker is something new is demonstrably wrong.

But, here’s the thing that is missed in making this ‘it’s nothing new’ argument. Most organisations and most safety people haven’t been working like this. They have been captured by an approach that says: safety is simple, follow the rules and if you don’t, we’ll punish you. This is counterproductive and does not produce the outcomes we need. And as work gets more complex, this gets further and further from what we need.

It’s a bit like hearing about electric cars as a different way of traveling but complaining it’s not new because you worked at Tesla 10 years ago. You may have, but most people didn’t.

So, for the vast majority, to frame Safety II as new and different is perfectly reasonable. But the approach is shot through with components of things that good safety people have been doing for years, without necessarily labeling them. But nobody credible ever suggested otherwise (i.e. Safety I and Safety II are complementary). However, those good things are not widespread. What Safety II approaches do well, in my view, is incorporate a large helping of philosophy that articulates why this change is necessary, capturing the imagination of stakeholders. This accounts for their success in reaching a wide audience, which has genuinely shifted the dial on getting these good approaches into more businesses and industries in a way that Safety I never did.

So, by all means, take issue with the technical details of different aspects of Safety I and Safety II and explore them vigorously with a view to getting better. But stop presenting them as opposing positions and arguing for the sake of it. If you are a Safety I proponent, think of Safety II as a useful vehicle for spreading and sharing the good things that have been done for some time under Safety I. You don’t have to call it Safety II (or anything else). I take care not to give these ideas a label when implementing, both to stop it feeling like a management fad and also to allow me to cherry pick good bits from different buckets. It seems to work. If you are a Safety II proponent, recognize the foundational aspects of Safety I that have made significant strides over decades to make workplaces safer and continue to refine and support them alongside the newer ideas. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater on the basis of a glossy brochure from a consultant selling the latest package, but who doesn’t really understand it.

Maybe then we can stop the unedifying name calling that seems to be spreading. That does none of us any good, much less the people we purport to help.

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