Veteran Vancouver engineer and consultant Gary Wong says the safety industry needs to reexamine its goals and how to accomplish them if it wants to keep workers safe and at the same time make them productive.
Wong’s approach, called Safety Differently, is based on what he says is a more realistic take on what goes on in the workplace.
“Industry standards and practices typically evolve based on what we learn from failures,” says Wong. “But evolution in the safety industry has been slow and continues to follow the old idea that safety is only the absence of people getting hurt.”
That approach, says Wong, is based on the belief that humans must be controlled with compliance rules and procedures.
“If an accident occurs, we automatically look for the people to blame and then punish them through discipline or termination,” Wong says. “Experts today promote the idealistic goal of zero harm, so it isn’t surprising workers are confused if a safety dilemma arises.”
Safety Differently on the other hand credits workers for getting things right, which he says they do most of the time.
“Safety Differently sees people as the solution and safety as an ethical responsibility,” says Wong. “It recognizes that safety is not something that is created, but emerges out of a complex adaptive system.”
When facing an unexpected change, people will adjust their actions accordingly, he says. In most cases, their adjustment will keep them stay safe.
But an unexpected change can also be dangerous, and, if a tipping point is reached, an incident can happen.
“Safety Differently focuses on hidden non-linear tipping point signals and how humans sense impending danger,” Wong says.
“It boosts the capacity of people to handle their activities safely and successfully under different conditions.”
Ron Gantt, vice-president of SCM Safety Inc. in San Ramon, Calif., says there is a big difference between Safety Differently and the old way of doing safety.
“The old safety model focuses on regulations and takes an adversarial approach,” Gantt says. “Safety Differently, on the other hand, is more collaborative, with more worker participation in finding solutions that prevent accidents.”
Safety Differently is based on three principles, Gantt says.
“First, it is a forward-looking, predictive tool,” he says.
“It looks ahead to prevent accidents in the future, not backward at accidents that happened in the past. Its purpose is to build the capacity to be successful from now on and as conditions change.”
Safety Differently’s second operating principle is that people are the solution, not the problem.
“People are instinctive risk managers and they have an innate ability for creative problem-solving,” Gantt says. “Let’s trust them to do the right thing. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of trust in the old safety model.”
Third, the people at the top of an organization should view safety as an ethical responsibility.
“They need to be curious about what their employees want and make an effort to satisfy them,” Gantt says.
Safety Differently is needed, he says, because the world is becoming more interdependent and complex and small changes can have huge effects.
Support for Safety Differently is growing, he adds.
“Many safety professionals are frustrated with the old way of doing things,” Gantt says.
At the same time, there is resistance from people and groups with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
“They are likely to say that the way to reduce the number of workplace injuries and deaths is to keep things the old way but to try harder,” he says.
Erik Hollnagel, a Danish academic and expert in system safety and human reliability analysis, advocates the application of “synesis to safety.” The term means the same thing as synthesis, or bringing together.
“The effort to ensure that work goes well and that the number of acceptable outcomes is as high as possible requires a unification of priorities, perspectives and practices,” says Hollnagel.
“Synesis brings together all these practices to produce outcomes that satisfy more than one priority and even reconciles multiple priorities.”
Many sectors of the economy conflate safety and quality or safety and productivity, Hollnagel says.
“We can look at a process or work situation from a safety point of view, from a quality point of view or from a productivity point of view,” Hollnagel says.
“But we should keep in mind that any individual point of view reveals only part of what is going on and that it is necessary to understand what is going on as a whole.”