Why minor accidents don’t predict major calamites

Safety Differently sees people as a resource to harness, rather than as a problem to control

Studies show that over the last two decades, safety improvements across a number of industries have largely flatlined – as measured in fatalities and serious injury rates, for instance – despite a vast expansion of safety investment, compliance and paperwork.

The case for doing Safety Differently – an approach developed by Sidney Dekker – is about halting or pushing back on ever-expanding bureaucratisation and compliance. Dekker’s method sees people as a resource to harness and not as a problem to control.

While today’s standard safety model has it that systems are already safe and need protection from unreliable human beings, Dekker says that’s an illusion. He says it’s not true that the only thing we need to do to make systems safe is to provide more procedures, more automation and tighter monitoring of performance, such as e-mails from managers imploring people to stop making errors or to follow the rules, saying: “If we just ask everybody to try a little harder, we’ll have a safe system.”

Dekker maintains that what we need to do is to invert the perspective. “Safety is not the absence of errors and violations. We need to see safety as the presence of something.

“When you get into the messy details, what you see is that under difficult circumstances people can still prevent disasters. This is because of their resilience or adaptive capacity, together with an ability to bounce back, to accommodate change and to absorb disruptions without catastrophic failure.”

Dekker says recent research backs this up: the risk of fatalities and life-changing events hide in normal, daily routine practices. “Heinrich maintains that minor accidents predict major ones. However, the Safety Differently movement finds fault with that idea. It views accidents such as BP’s Deepwater Horizon as focusing too much on near misses instead of on critical issues. Minor accidents don’t predict major catastrophes.”

In his view, safety should be an ethical responsibility for people, assets and communities, instead of bureaucratic accountability to managers, boards and regulators.

“Safety Differently doesn’t just want to stop things from going wrong, but is curious about discovering why things go well – and helping organisations to enhance capacities in their teams, people and processes to make this happen,” he says.

Watch Safety Differently – The Movie for an online snippet.

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