Sidney Dekker, Routledge, £40.99 paperback, £20.50 e-book *

Foundations of Safety Science – a century of understanding accidents and disasters, 1st edition

Having penned a few titles (The Safety Anarchist and The Edge of Heaven) which some readers may have found unusual or particularly personal – as he strayed from his typical narrative style – Dekker is back in familiar territory with The Foundations of Safety Science.



A review of 100 years of accidents and disasters – written in classic Dekker style, forthright and to the point and supported by a stack of referencing for those who wish to pursue the subject further, his latest title makes for a solid read.

From Heinrich to Hollnagel and hearts and minds, Taylorism to accident-proneness and behaviouralism, human error to human factors and cognitive systems, this book is profoundly comprehensive. Over 11 chapters Dekker deftly dissects incidents from the 1900s to the present day and does a sterling job in exploring the key drivers that have shaped the science of safety as we know it.

Touching on the late 19th century definition of human factors as people’s moral and mental deficits, the connection between Heinrich’s “unsafe acts” in the 1930s and the Swiss cheese model 60 years later as well as the reinvention of human factors in the 1940s, the narrative on the evolution of workplace safety is superb.

For me the interpretivist and functionalist discussions on safety culture that appear in the penultimate chapter bring practical value (at £110 for the hardback, I’d opt for the paperback or e-book options), yet it’s the final chapter that provides the essential material. In a diligent debate on the future of safety, Dekker and co-author Johan Bergström tackle the emerging topic that is resilience engineering – and provide a thorough appraisal.

This book is evidence of a return by Dekker to the brilliance that shone through with his Field Guide to Understanding Human Error. Direct, clear and incisive, The Foundations of Safety Science provides a comprehensive review of what makes safety what it is today. Each chapter opens by setting out its key points before diving into analysis and suggestion, and closing with a series of study questions that – regardless of whether you’re a student interested in a career in safety or a seasoned practitioner looking to reflect – provide a useful moment to consider not just why things are as they are, but also how the reader understands context, engages with stakeholders and plots their trajectory.

Modern practitioners will find this book to be a superb analysis of the foundations of what, how and why we do what we do in safety today. At the same time, it serves to nudge those same practitioners, encouraging them to consider the future of safety, its science, and application.

 * price correct at the time of review



CEO of international safety culture consultancy RMS 

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