An Introduction to Safety Differently

An Introduction to Safety Differently

Published April 2, 2021

5 minute read

Safety Differently is a concept that is only a few years old, but it is increasingly talked about.

We’ve introduced the concept previously and set it against the ‘alternative’ zero harm approach espoused originally by H.W. Heinrich. This post will paint a broader picture of Safety Differently and explore if it really works with the intention of looking at current best practice in a future post.

One of the main advocates of Safety Differently is the Australian academic Sydney Dekker. He calls it a “movement” which aims to change our perspective on safety as well as on business, workers, the problems those workers face, and the solutions we find to those problems.

Let’s explore this further.

The Traditional Approach to Health and Safety


To get a full understanding of Safety Differently, you first have to look at the traditional approach to health and safety, i.e. the approach taken by the majority of companies which typically comes under the umbrella term “zero harm”.

A key element of the zero harm approach is the elimination of minor accidents. This, according to traditional health and safety theory, results in the prevention of major accidents and fatalities.

The zero harm approach is grounded in the view that accidents occur because of the poor management of risks. Therefore, by changing the way people behave, you can eliminate fatalities. The practicalities of zero harm usually involves reporting and investigating accidents and then implementing new or revised policies to change worker behaviours based on what you learn.

The ultimate goal is to eliminate risky behaviour. Taken to its ultimate conclusion, when you eliminate risky behaviour, you eliminate minor accidents and near-misses. According to the zero harm health and safety approach, eliminating minor accidents (i.e. having as many accident-free days as possible) results in the prevention of major accidents and fatalities.

How is Safety Differently Different?


Advocates of Safety Differently say the zero harm approach to health and safety is illogical.

After all, can you say you’ve got something because you haven’t got something else? For many people, you can’t, i.e. you can’t say you are successfully preventing major accidents and fatalities simply because you have eliminated minor accidents.

The only way you can say this with any authority is by proving the link between eliminating minor accidents and preventing major ones and fatalities. Definitive proof, backed by research does not exist.

You can take this a stage further by saying a major accident or fatality can occur after many days – hundreds or more – of being accident-free. In addition, such major incidents don’t occur in the moment. Instead, they are the result of many, many small occurrences that build, lead to, and, ultimately, cause a major incident that results in death or serious injury. Those occurrences are likely to happen on many of the days that are accident-free.

In other words, it is wrong to think your approach to health and safety is successful, according to advocates of Safety Differently, simply because you can tick-off another accident-free day. This is because you may still have work processes, policies, or practices that will cause a serious incident in the future.

So, the Safety Differently approach says zero harm policies simply cannot be completely successful. Instead, it says organisations and wider society must accept that accidents are a natural part of business and work.

Therefore, instead of focusing significant resources on eliminating minor accidents, you should accept they will happen. This frees you up to focus your safety efforts and resources on preventing major accidents and fatalities.

This is quite a change from the traditional philosophy and ideals of health and safety. However, advocates of Safety Differently say you simply cannot eliminate all accidents and achieve zero harm when people are involved. When people are involved, mistakes will, inevitably, happen.

That said, Safety Differently proponents are not overly critical of the zero harm approach. Instead, they say zero harm has gone as far as it can go.

Safety Differently advocates are, however, critical of many elements of the traditional zero harm approach. This includes the motivation of companies in relation to health and safety.

They point out a lot of what is done in business concerning health and safety is for the benefit of the business, i.e. to comply with regulations, to present the right corporate image, to reduce insurance premiums, etc. However, these business objectives do not always correlate with protecting the safety of workers most at risk.

For example, a zero harm policy that involves eliminating minor accidents might look good on paper in the boardroom, particularly if it is accompanied by lots of accident-free days. However, are you really protecting workers from fatal injury by eliminating minor cuts, bumps, and bruises?

The Safety Differently Approach


So, what is the Safety Differently approach to health and safety? As mentioned above, it involves focusing almost all health and safety efforts on the most serious risks. Those risks will differ depending on the business, but examples are working at height or with dangerous substances.

Safety Differently also involves taking a more positive approach to health and safety. So, instead of only focusing on investigating incidents (i.e. health and safety failures), you focus more on successes. Also, you place more trust in people on the ground, looking objectively when they deviate from agreed plans or policies rather than dealing with such situations critically or in an accusatory way.

Taking it a stage further, Safety Differently involves getting the people who actually do the work to decide on rules and safe working practices. Again, this is different from the traditional approach to health and safety where rules and policies are set by managers and other third-parties before being communicated to (or imposed on) the people doing the job.

The theory of letting workers make decisions on health and safety has been applied in other situations, such as the shared space urban design concept. This concept involves removing road markings, signs, traffic lights, and other elements designed to control traffic.

In many cases, such as in Drachten in the Netherlands, the approach reduces accidents and congestion. The idea is that people will modify how they do things – i.e. use the road as a driver, cyclist, or pedestrian – to ensure they stay safe.

In other words, letting people decide for themselves rather than attempting to control them. But does current health and safety experience bear this out? Our analysis suggests not. Look at the fatality rates of employees and contractors. You would expect employees to be safer and have lower fatality rates than contractors but this is not the case. Is the reason that contractors are forced to follow procedures but employees are not as they ‘know the ropes’?

According to Sydney Dekker, Safety Differently differs from traditional health and safety in three main ways:

  • How you define health and safety – a traditional approach defines safety as the absence of unsafe behaviour, accidents and, unnecessary risks, i.e. the absence of negatives. Safety Differently, on the other hand, defines safety more positively. An example Dekker has used in the past defines safety as “a capacity to be successful in varying conditions”.
  • The role of workers – traditional health and safety aims to control and change the behaviour of workers, whereas Safety Differently views people as the solution.
  • The focus of the business – traditionally, businesses view health and safety as a bureaucratic issue, i.e. a necessity but also something that is unwelcome and distracting. The Safety Differently approach says businesses should view health and safety as an ethical responsibility.

The Three Principles of Safety Differently


You can summarise the above core elements of Safety Differently in three principles:

  • People are part of the solution, not the problem
  • Safety is the presence of positives not the absence of negatives (as long periods of zero incidents often precede serious incidents)
  • Safety is an ethical responsibility and is not simply about bureaucratic accountability

Does Safety Differently Work?


Now for the big question – does Safety Differently work? The simple answer is we don’t know as there is no definitive research on the topic. That said, there is no definitive research that proves a zero harm approach works either.

This brings another key question to mind: is Safety Differently really that different in practice from a forward-thinking zero harm approach? The fact is, an organisation with a positive and ingrained health and safety culture will have already put into practice many of the key principles and features of Safety Differently. Examples include involving employees in the decision-making process and considering health and safety as being an ethical responsibility.

So, there are interesting concepts within Safety Differently, plus any discussion on health and safety can improve our overall collective knowledge and understanding. Safety Differently is not a revolution, though, particularly in organisations with the right health and safety culture.

Want to know more?

If you have any questions then please get in touch. 

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Author EcoOnline

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