John Green explains how the risk management philosophies Safety II and Safety Differently are playing a vital role in guiding the next stages of safety development.
With a career stretching from HSE director at Laing O’Rourke and Battersea Power Station Development Company to chief safety officer at Aecon Group, John Green knows about dealing with safety on a commercial scale. His endorsement of Safety Differently highlights the potency of this new – and still developing – approach to risk management.
‘There is often a misunderstanding about Safety Differently or Safety II, which is that it only investigates what goes right,’ John says. ‘It doesn’t. We would investigate all outcomes, good, bad or normal. The caveat would be that you have to be able to learn something from it. Things like twisted ankles or bumped heads where someone’s mind was simply somewhere else – there are limited learning opportunities from them and we should really be courageous enough to say, “We need to put these to one side now.” There are far more useful things – serious near misses and high-risk activities – that we should be spending our time obsessing on getting right.’
Man of the movement
The shared values of Safety II (focused on engineering) and Safety Differently (essentially people-based) are threefold: frontline workers are the solutions to, not the cause of, many of the problems we face; safety should be seen as the capacity of the organisation to get things right, rather than simply the absence of things that go wrong; and instead of being a bureaucratic activity, safety is a moral responsibility for the workforce.
‘The workforce now is highly intelligent and expert at what they do. Our new approach is simply a reflection of how the nature of work and the nature of the workforce has changed over the years, and how organisations now manage that new capacity,’ John says.
So, how have organisations responded to this new approach? ‘There’s been a mixed reception. People had locked themselves into this notion that the solution was the traditional approach, just faster, harder, better. Essentially, more rules,’ John says.
‘I know when I deal with other organisations, I find nuggets of Safety II. They might be looking at investigating things that have gone right, they might be obsessing about high-level risks, they might have decluttered their safety management system as the result of a review.’
Of the organisations most prepared to adopt new ways, many are businesses where eliminating high risks is vital. ‘Aviation, for example, is very familiar with crew resource and cockpit resource management, so they have been looking at this for quite a while. Oil and gas have been playing around with these ideas, too,’ John says. ‘These sorts of industries need this approach most because they need to obsess about high-level risk, and not fret about all the other noise.’
People and process: Safety II and Safety differently explained
The Safety Differently concept is based around critical thinking, building employees’ capabilities to manage safety through enabling them to adapt, rather than trying to reduce accidents to zero by constraining actions through rules and procedures. While Safety Differently is people-oriented, Safety II is more process-oriented. It recognises that complex systems can’t be deconstructed into simple instructional steps – it encourages organisations to build resilient systems that can adjust to cope with unpredictable conditions.
New skills for safety
One thing that is helping Safety Differently gain traction is that the importance of workforce wellbeing and mental health seems to work in step with it.
‘One of the unintended consequences of following a wellbeing programme or a Safety Differently route is that both approaches demand a level of trust in the organisation,’ John says.
‘It doesn’t matter whether it’s trust to speak up about struggling with mental health, or trust to speak up about something that might lead to an accident. Both approaches depend on an openness to be able to raise issues without fear of repercussion. A lot of organisations have used wellbeing as the first step to breaking down that trust barrier.
With increasingly widespread significance and influence, elements of Safety Differently have since spun into peripheral areas, such as the skill-sets that safety professionals need as the sector moves forward.
‘What I have seen in the last five years, and what I think is necessary for the profession moving into the future, is an increased use of curiosity by safety professionals and leaders, an increased intelligence around the need to involve many parties – purchasing, finance, commercial, bid teams – in solving risk management problems before frontline workers have to deal with them.’
Essentially, OSH professionals need to cast off the traditional uniform of safety policeman and focus on a new role as performance enablers.
‘Rather than having a compliance focus – which is rightly what we’ve had over a number of decades – we now need creativity. How do we encourage people to act safely?’ John says.
‘When my kids were small, I remember one of them walking across a white carpet with a glass of Ribena that was full to the brim. I shouted at them to stop. Of course, the first thing they did was to shake and spill it. So that approach doesn’t work, we know it doesn’t work, yet we continue to treat our workforce like that.
‘Instead, we have to find out what we need to do to help people be successful. We need to understand what motivates people, what drives them, and help them manage the conflicts they have in balancing the trade-offs between satisfying production outcomes and safety outcomes. We can’t just stand back any more and say the answer lies in a bulky safety management system.’
Theory into practice: the pain of changing a mindset
How does an organisation adopt Safety Differently or Safety II? There’s no checklist: it’s all about changing the mindset.
‘Whenever I incorporate Safety II into any organisation, the most painful period is getting them through a philosophical shift,’ John says.
‘The first thing they say is: give us the tools, the checklists, the procedures, the processes, and tell us what we need to measure, and we’ll just get on with it. But that’s not appropriate because you will make the same mistakes as you did with the traditional approach to safety.
‘Let me give you an example: in Safety I, you investigate things that go wrong, you find out what’s broken, who didn’t do what they should have done, and generally you fire them, or you discipline them. In Safety II you investigate what went right, but if you don’t make the necessary philosophical shift you still end up finding what was broken, you still end up finding who didn’t do the things they should have done, and you
still end up firing them.
‘The philosophical shift is to understand where the system broke down, where the capacity was exceeded, where resources were inaccurate, and then you support people to be successful and not fire them. There are tools that you can generate that are appropriate to your organisation, but only once you have made this philosophical shift.’
John Green is vice-president, global HSE, at SNC-Lavalin. Until March this year, he was senior vice-president and chief safety officer at Aecon Group Ltd