All posts by Sidney Dekker

The Safety Profession can be like a Priesthood

Lincoln Eldrige, who probably wouldn’t want to be called a ‘safety professional,’ suggested to me some years ago that the safety profession is like a priesthood. I have always considered this an intriguing assertion, and finally decided to dig into it a bit more. What I found was fascinating parallels between belief systems that manage anxieties and hopes even a post-secular world, and the credentialism of a new priesthood that is (self-)ordained to assuage and inspire those … Continue Reading ››

The original hearts and minds campaign, and the dereliction of behavior-based safety

In 1960, shortly after his election, President Kennedy asked Robert McNamara to become secretary of defense in his new cabinet. McNamara, known as a star and a whiz-kid, had been president of the Ford Motor Company for all of five weeks, so it took a bit of cajoling. But he eventually joined the administration in 1961, taking with him the modernism of Ford’s production lines. A few years into his tenure, with Vietnam taking up ever more resources and … Continue Reading ››

‘Bureaucratic entrepreneurism’ and the growing ‘mental health crisis’ at work

Remember when you could go on company travel and just book the trip? Not anymore. You probably have to do a seven-page risk assessment (whether the trip takes you to the next town over, or to central Africa), which will have to be approved by the next three levels up, and get signatures from all those levels. It is an example of what has sometimes been referred to as ‘bureaucratic entrepreneurism’ (Dekker, 2014). Bureaucracies tend to grow … Continue Reading ››

Is it 1947 yet?

broken_iceNeither Lieutenant Nathan Poloski’s body, nor his F/A-18 Hornet were ever found in waters almost three miles deep. All that was located in the Western Pacific after his fighter jet collided with another from the same aircraft carrier were his helmet and some pieces of debris. The pilot of the other jet ejected safely and was rescued shortly after. The Navy accident report, all of eight pages long, was acquired by the New York Times under a Freedom … Continue Reading ››

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of the right to speak up

8985496669_8dd78af2ca_kSix months before the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated over Florida in 1986, engineer Roger Boisjoly wrote a portentous memo. In it, he warned that if the weather was too cold, O-rings in the solid rocket boosters could fail. It was the job of these O-rings to seal the joints between the segments of the SRB’s—two huge, towering silos of rockets made by contractor Thiokol in Utah, that helped lift the Shuttle into space. The memo was, in … Continue Reading ››

Zero vision and the Western salvation narrative

[bq_right] “You want if possible—and there is no madder ‘if possible’—to abolish suffering…?”  Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (par. 225, emphasis in original). [/bq_right] Some, or even many, have started to question the zero accident vision and the safety commitment practices it produces. Our knowledge of what a zero vision is, where it comes from and how it might or might not work has many gaps. In a sense, it is still a ‘black box.’ Little is known about the exact activities and mechanisms that lie underneath the … Continue Reading ››

The ‘failed state’ of safety

The ancient city of Sabratha, LibyaI recently gave a talk about Safety Differently to a group of, mostly, safety professionals. As usual, I offended some people with my spontaneous jokes (this is easier to do in some places than in others, believe me), and made those who have vested interests in the old paradigm squirm or look shell-shocked (“but, but, my posters saying that ‘safety is our number ONE priority’ actually work…!”). Also, as usual, I divided … Continue Reading ››

Zero pessimism

file000637574664The Enlightenment once suggested that if we are smart, if we think harder about a problem with those minds we can trust, then we can make the world a better place, we can constantly improve it. Modernism says that technical-scientific rationality can create that better, safer, more predictable, more controllable world for us. We might achieve workplaces without injuries, incidents or accidents. If, for example, we plan the work carefully, if we design well and train, discipline, … Continue Reading ››

Tinker, Taylor…

The old English nursery rhyme "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor" was adapted as title for John LeCarre's 1974 spy novel. Its main character, George Smiley, first fired, then reinstated, is the Beggar Man of the rhyme. At some point, he is involved in an operation called "Witchcraft", forcing a Soviet mole to reveal his identity. Smiley, naturally, becomes the hero. I have often written of a hero of our engineered world, Isaac Newton. He, after all, conceived of a world of laws and determinacy, a predictable world … Continue Reading ››