Reaching safety’s tipping point?

Having spent a month in Canada, where he attended three conferences addressed by experts in health and safety, Mathew Goncalves has come to believe that it is time to challenge the philosophies and foundations upon which safety has been built

In an age of technological development and advancement, one key element remains crucial to success – the human factor. That’s the common message to come out of three major safety conferences that I attended recently in Canada – the Western Conference on Safety in Vancouver; the 37th Annual Workplace Health and Safety Conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia; and the prestigious 69th Annual Petroleum Safety Conference in Banff, Alberta.

At each event – which brought together some of the best Canadian experts in health and safety – the need to integrate technology and people was prominent. It was articulated perfectly when Mike Krayacich, a safety practitioner at a large energy company, told delegates at the 69th Petroleum Safety Conference that technology alone would not bring value. “Technology and people need to work together to gain any successes,” he said.

The intermingling of technology and safety was always going to be a significant feature at the three forums and, in this sense, I heard much about other trends, too – the advent of drones, autonomous gas-detection robotics, connected workers, autonomous trucks and much more. However, the need to integrate technology and people remained a core focus, with some known concepts and practices being turned on their heads in the name of the next safety revolution.

Speakers emphasised that a holistic view of safety was important. “We need to understand the context of an organisation to ensure that the approach we take is appropriate when developing, implementing and maintaining a system,” said health and safety expert Eldeen Pozniak. “We need to understand people’s definitions.”

Incidentally, this sentiment is echoed in ISO 45001, a popular topic in South Africa, which dedicates an entire section to the scope of an organisation. Definitions are crucial so that we are “talking the same language” when engaging with people, whether they are workers or senior management.

Another significant point that Pozniak made was the importance of the credibility of the individual delivering the safety message – and that it might not be the safety practitioner.

At each of the conferences, the need for credible and better communication within an organisation became a key refrain. Practitioners lamented how they had been trained in technical aspects of their jobs, but never on the non-technical side, sometimes making it difficult for them to impart their knowledge. Breakdowns in the flow of communication meant that targets for information never received the message, or, if they did, they never understood it.

The latter point highlights the fact that information needs to be put in such a way that it attracts and maintains people’s attention; that it can be readily understood, and that it calls to action those at whom it is aimed.

Mental health in the workplace – including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and stress management – was the most requested discussion topic at the Western Conference on Safety, according to the co-chairman Terry Swain. He said one of the biggest trends within the industry was “the recognition that mental health issues can and do fall within the scope of the corporate safety programme”.

Swain added that employers, supervisors and co-workers could play a positive role in reducing incidents triggered by negative mental health issues if the topic was incorporated as a regular part of an occupational safety and health (OSH) programme.

Another trend discussed at each of the conferences related to impaired performance of employees in the workplace. Though speakers tended to highlight the effects of cannabis, they pointed out that impairment could be caused by many other substances or factors including alcohol, depression, prescription drugs and fatigue.

As safety practitioners and leaders, it is our job to remove barriers to effective work – and to do that requires a shift in mindset to incorporate more into our OHS programmes and policies. Other pertinent aspects to come out of my month-long trip to Canada include:


Though work has never been as safe as it is today, progress has stalled and statistics have plateaued. That’s the view of Jeffery Lyth and Frank Garrett, each of whom are safety practitioners with over 20 years of experience. The duo facilitated and discussed New View concepts that have been gaining momentum over the last decade. These concepts may just provide the bedrock of thinking as health and safety moves into the future.

Work as imagined, work as done

Work as imagined refers to various assumptions (explicit or implicit) that people have about how their work (or that of others) should be done. It is how organisations and people think the work is being executed and how it is documented in laws, rules, procedures, guidelines and checklists.

Work as done refers to how something is actually done. It encompasses the routines and patterns that emerge to get the job done within a specific context. It adapts to the circumstances at the time and may or may not entail risk.

There will always be a difference between the two, but this is not a bad thing, as work as imagined is not always safer than work as done. There needs to be more understanding of work as done, why the gap exists and how to bridge the gap effectively. Complex systems, such as workplaces, perform reliably because of people’s adaptability and flexibility.

Human performance variability is not a threat, but is essential for the system to function and is responsible for both successes and failures. Trying to constrain the human performance variability can affect the ability of the system to achieve the desired outcomes.


Prof Erik Hollnagel, one of Europe’s leading experts on industrial safety, describes Safety-I as trying to have as few things go wrong as possible; that humans are treated as a liability or a hazard; and investigations aim to find only cause and contributory factors.

Safety-II, on the other hand, is about ensuring that as many things as possible go right; seeing humans as a resource; and that investigations aim only to learn.

Safety-I focuses only on failures, but these are relatively uncommon and have low predictive value. For every one failure, there are many more successes. Therefore, Safety-II also focuses on, and learns from, the successes. This refers to everyday work; the things that go right. This work has a high predictive value and, by ensuring that these successes happen, safety becomes an investment that is interlinked to productivity and quality.

Safety Differently

Prof Sidney Dekker of Griffin University in Brisbane, Australia, is the driver of a movement called Safety Differently, a concept that is based on three shifts in perception:

• People are not a problem to control, but rather a solution to harness.

• Safety is not the absence of negatives (incidents, accidents or injuries), but rather the presence of positive capacities and resilience.

• Safety should not be just a bureaucratic accountability up the hierarchy, but rather an ethical responsibility from the top down.

Another part of Safety Differently is the concept of retributive justice versus restorative justice. Retributive justice asks: Who did wrong? How bad was it? What should the consequences be?  Dekker describes this as meeting pain with pain. Restorative justice asks: Who is hurt? What do they need? Who has the obligation to meet that need?

Human and organisational performance (HOP)

HOP is about understanding how humans perform and how we can build systems that are more error resilient. The thought leader of HOP, Dr Todd Conklin, has distilled the philosophy into five principles:

• Error is normal. It is not the opposite of success as it also exists within successes.

• Blame fixes nothing. Blame is emotionally important, but not operationally important.

• Learning and improving is vital. Learning is a strategic and deliberate operational choice toward improvement. If a company isn’t becoming a learning organisation, it is losing to one that is.

• Context drives behaviours. Behaviours are influenced by organisational systems and values. Actions have reasons and the reasons make sense given the specific context.

• The response to failure matters. It could be to blame and punish, or to learn and improve, but not both.

Since learning is vital, a tool called a Learning Team has been developed. The tool brings together those who can best describe how work is actually being done, not only safety investigators. Its goal is to reveal complexity to leadership, empower those closest to the work, and create operational intelligence to inform system design with more accurate understanding of system weaknesses.

Social Psychology of Risk (SPoR)

SPoR, founded by Dr Robert Long, seeks to answer the question: “Why do people do what they do?” It seeks to understand risk and human decision-making through the lens of social and psychological influences. Risk is classified into one of three different layers:

• The workspace (physical) affected by administrative, engineering and systems controls.

• The headspace (psychological) influences due to human decision-making.

• The group space (cultural) dealing with the cultural and sub-cultural influences in an organisation, which are made up of artefacts, slogans, language, history, attitudes and beliefs. All of these matter when trying to change or influence organisational culture.

Zero-accident vision

There is a noticeable movement away from Zero Harm safety programmes in Canada. This movement is, however, still quite controversial and not universally accepted. Swain states: “While the research and early studies are drawing a straight line to how they often harm and hide the real safety culture of an organisation, the majority of employers/safety people still believe that a zero-accident programme is not only good, but the only acceptable type of programme to have. There will be a time of turmoil as reality challenges the belief systems of traditional safety programmes.”

Questions around Zero Harm programmes are being debated globally and South Africa is no exception. Zero Harm targets are common practice in the South African business and corporate landscape.


After spending a month in Canada absorbing new information, my thoughts are racing. The concepts I heard fundamentally disagreed with the concepts I had learnt, but I could not simply disregard them as they resonated with something inside me. Once I had more discussions about the history of safety, I came to believe that it was time to challenge the philosophies and foundations upon which safety has been built.

Medicine, quality, technology… all have changed, sometimes drastically so, over the last few decades. Are we now at a tipping point in safety? I believe so. The integration of other fields of study, such as the humanities, into the safety space represents a fundamental shift in how workers should be managed.

We live in turbulent times where economic constraints force organisations to prioritise production. The New View shows us that an organisation’s greatest resource is its employees. We need to remain human-centric, have some more industrial empathy, trust and a good command of non-technical skills to effectively navigate turbulence.

Learning is crucial and workers at the front lines of our organisations are a vast well of knowledge and experience. Maybe it is time to stop telling them what to do (or not do), and instead start asking them what they need to complete the job efficiently and safely? It’s time for dialogue and to invest in organisational culture.

As Conklin says: “A culture can only be as safe as the leader’s ability to hear bad news.”

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