All posts by Sidney Dekker

‘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 ››

Can safety renew itself?

Immanuel_Kant_3Is the safety profession uniquely incapable of renewing itself? For a profession that is organized around the elimination, reduction and control of risk, innovation can be a tall order. Innovation means taking risk. It requires a critique and a questioning of assumptions that underly our practices. Such a critique, such questioning, can be unwelcome. These are assumptions and practices, after all, that (many believe) have got us to where we are today, that keep many of us in … Continue Reading ››

Accountability up, or responsibility down?

file0001652481771A few years ago, I learnt of a woman who was slightly injured at work. She told her supervisor, showed the injury, and went to see the doctor that same afternoon. While in the waiting room, she got a call from school. Her son had fallen ill and been sent home. After her appointment and having her gash cleaned and glued by a nurse, she rushed home to take care of her boy. She later informed her … Continue Reading ››

Safety culture: Facts, fiction and faith

We know that safety cultures are not just created at the sharp end. For safety culture, we need to look deeper inside an organization—at its procedures, work practices, design, supervision, management, governance. This has been a very empowering idea, shifting our focus onto the context surrounding people's work. But it has also been accompanied by burgeoning safety bureaucracies. In pursuit of safety culture, we now expect organizations to deploy vast systems—loss prevention systems, safety management … Continue Reading ››