S is for Safety II

With Safety I (traditional thinking) we define safety as the condition where nothing goes wrong – there is no loss of life, no injuries, no damage. The focus of safety practitioners is on hazards, horrors and harm – the opposite of this. To improve standards, we look at where there is a lack of safety, itself evidenced by accidents, and work from there. This negative approach has been applied to occupational health too. Health surveillance looks for signs of harm, and investigations determine why someone has hearing loss or dermatitis.

Image credit: © iStock/SpringNymph

If Safety I is defined to be “as few things as possible go wrong”, Safety II’s definition can be “as many things as possible go right (under varying conditions).” OSH expert Professor Erik Hollnagel says that, by focusing on understanding accidents, Safety I ignores the many opportunities there are to learn from what goes right most of the time, and how people respond to abnormal conditions to prevent problems escalating (bit.ly/2ttlb3S). He argues that things go wrong and things go right for the same basic reasons.

While Safety I tries to find a chain of immediate and underlying causes to be eliminated or controlled, Safety II looks at what people do when things go well, and tries to increase that activity. Imagine putting another layer at the bottom of the accident triangle labelled “everything goes well” (below) and see how many opportunities to learn this gives you.

Accident-triangle-labelled-“everything-goes-well”If Safety I is based on the idea that following procedures correctly will always lead to the right result, Safety II recognises that complex systems can’t be deconstructed into simple “do this, then that” steps. People must adjust what they do every day – variability is essential to doing the job. But, as discussed in last month’s feature on human error (bit.ly/2t0iuro), the message behind Safety II is that the variability that completed the job safely on one day is the same variability blamed for the accident on the next. Rather than attempting to create safety management procedures under which everyone works “to the system”, Safety II proposes we build resilient systems that can adjust to cope with unpredictable conditions.

Since the 1980s we have separated OSH from other management systems such as those for quality, but Safety II has the effect of realigning safety goals with operational goals, which should have a positive impact on the bottom line.

Professor Sidney Dekker, who has written several books on human factors and safety, has branded this approach “Safety Differently” but admits that “ideologically and in terms of practical applications, we’re pretty much together on all of this”. He understands Safety II to be “more process-oriented”, while Safety Differently is “more people-oriented, focusing on the implications for leadership, empowerment, autonomy, trust and such”. John Green, director of health, safety and environment for Europe at construction company Laing O’Rourke, has promoted Safety Differently in the UK. He recognises this nuance, aligning himself with Dekker’s person-centric approach more than Hollnagel’s engineering-led paradigm.

Dekker’s overall message is that people should be seen not as a problem to control, but as a solution to harness. He can see where human factors and other old-school thinking fit in, but believes a new attitude is needed, in which managers rely on people to do the right thing rather than be overloaded with checklists and procedures. “We need to move from counting negatives to understanding what makes an organisation normally successful,” Dekker says.

Safety practitioner and author Carsten Busch (www.mindtherisk.com) regards Dekker’s concept more broadly: “Safety Differently collects under its banner many other things that are not in the safety mainstream yet, like just culture, second victims and so on.”

In his review of Hollnagel’s book Safety-I and Safety-II, Busch expresses concern that so much of the book “is devoted to telling about the shortcomings of Safety I”, an approach he believes “actually harms the arguments in favour of Safety II”. Busch concludes: “Safety I does have shortcomings and, yes, some applications are below par but that doesn’t mean we should throw out the baby with the bathwater”.

Green has a way to reconcile traditional and new approaches. He describes an overweight, unfit person who wants to undertake the Iron Man triathlon. First, they must lose weight, then they must get fit. Traditional safety is how organisations lose weight, and Safety Differently is how they get fitter.

So Safety II and Safety Differently are not the end of Safety I. We still have to do many of the things that we learned in Safety I. Rules and procedures are needed, as long as they are reviewed with users. But with ever more complex systems, some new thinking is required to make sure that our rules and their tendency to reduce people’s autonomy to be flexible and adaptive don’t create the same drag on efficiency as a lack of safety.



Bridget Leathley is a freelance health and safety consultant, providing risk management support in facilities, retail and office environments.  She delivers face-to-face safety training including IOSH and bespoke courses, and contributes to e-learning courses through evaluations and design work.  She has been writing for health and safety publications since 1996.  

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