People don’t come to work to be safe. They come to work to work. Or as a project manager once told me:
-I probably spend about 50% of my day thinking about behaviours and safety. You probably close to 100% of yours. But what about the guys doing the job? We remind them of safety messages and what we think is important during pre-start meetings and toolbox talks. But then what? Then they’re off, focusing on other things. I don’t think they spend even 5% of their day thinking about what we tell them is important. They can’t. They are too busy getting on with work!
Having safety as a separate topic brings about some problematic consequences. When safety becomes something separate (albeit a priority) it is something we do first or separately, and then we can get down to business. Through this, safety may be reduced to a tick in the box topic that does not carry through to the issues and areas where it potentially needs to be integrated and considered.
In a world in which safety is paramount, organisational life is naturally subject to intense efforts to manage and control what can go wrong. This takes place from within a longstanding reductionist tradition in which tricky issues and challenges are divided (reduced) into smaller, more understandable and manageable subparts and components. Consequently, the whole of organisations may be divided into departments or functions – Leadership, Production, Information Technology, Innovation, Engineering, Safety, etc. But the whole may also be cut across processes, so that for example design and construction are handled by different units. This refinement can continue as far as it is believed it provides efficient and meaningful chunks to manage.
So, separating ‘safety’ into a distinct thing to manage, to talk about or to do, makes sense and may facilitate specialisation and further refinement around specific safety issues. ‘This is the process for cleaning the admin building’. ‘These are the golden rules’. And so on. However, the further the reduction of chunks into sub-chunks goes – the more detailed safety issues we talk about – the more specialised the perspective and knowledge becomes. And the more specialised a particular perspective grows, the more disconnected it will be from other aspects.
At some stage, however, someone will have to integrate the many parts in a work setting. Someone will have to overcome the tension between the various bits of specialised knowledge and incorporate ‘safety’ into the seamless stream of everyday activities. This is the dilemma that many people working in safety-critical industries will find themselves in; they have to be efficient, get the job done as quickly and cheaply as possible, but they also have to be safe. Moreover, various contradictory goals need to be managed under time pressure and under uncertainty, and it is hard to foresee the outcome of certain actions; small effects can have large consequences. People are the only resource in the system that can make these kind of trade-offs, as they are the only ones who can adapt and prioritise under pressure, as well as act under uncertainty. These are the kind of issues we need to talk about. These are the issues we need to facilitate the management of. And these are the issues we need to help each other to make informed decisions about. Over-focusing on the safety aspect of work does not only do great injustice to the people that integrate these various competing goals on a daily basis, it is nonsensical.
Paradoxically, it seems the more we refine roles, accountabilities, rights and duties around safety the more we lose sight of how the many parts of an organisation go together. Analysis, decision and actions become miss-calibrated or misguided as we increasingly try to push the safety agenda. For example, much analysis goes into trying to solve what people think is a behavioural safety problem, when a more effective solution for safety may be found in looking for an easier or more engaging way to do the job.
In effect, when an organisation develops a safety procedure for cleaning the admin buildings (slip hazards, manual handling and chemicals were the reasons given to me), or put up signs about its golden rules, it may be a sign not of safety integration, but indeed of safety separation.
While safety is an important outcome of organisational processes, it does not necessarily mean that it is best achieved by putting a particular focus on safety. While many organisations have employed safety professionals, it does not mean it’s a good idea to give them the task to solve safety issues. And while having a 5 or 10 minute ‘Safety Share’ in the beginning of every meeting is pretty much standard in any ambitious Australian business, it may be detrimental for safety.
So what is the alternative? Safety emerges, is tested and shaped in the interaction between myriad aspects and inputs, such as design, culture, construction, business pressures, environmental changes, physiological and psychological fluctuations, competing goals, resource constraints, administration, training, information technology (to mention a few). That is to say that safety is about how many different aspects are interconnected, interdependent, and interact.
If we believe that safety comes out of the interaction between people, tools, resources, goals, environment and the organisation, then safety should be about gradually seeking solutions outside of safety. When faced with something that is considered a safety issue, we should not see it as a safety problem, but an efficiency, production or operational issue; about getting the job done. How else can we bring what happens “off the frequency” into the conversation and seek to integrate as much as possible of all the factors that influences safety?
What if we got it wrong in putting safety first? What if the reductionist approach has outlived its usefulness in safety? A more holistic way of thinking naturally invites more people to be part of the discussion and to shed light on how things go together. One of the greatest challenges for future safety professionals may be to come up with ways and mechanisms which allow organisations to comprehend what is going on, not just on the safety front.
Note: Thanks to Roel van Winsen, PhD candidate at the Safety Innovation Lab at Griffith University for the help in connecting the pieces..