28th Oct, 2019 Read time 17 minutes

21st Century Safety – Moving from isolated dogma, to integrated partnering

This insight has been provided by Brian Long from Aecom and looks at the recent advances in Safety thinking and how we must evolve and move beyond some traditional models.

This article highlights recent advances in Safety thinking and reinforces the idea that there is much to be gained from evolving past more traditional models.

It goes on to warn of the dangers of creating ‘illusory correlations’ or seeing these advances as some kind of ‘silver bullet’, purely on the basis that they may be novel, more salient and more likely to capture people’s attention, particularly when compared to what has gone before.

Finally, it suggests that those who will be tasked with embedding these novel ideas and concepts will need to move beyond some of the traditional, but largely unhelpful safety dogma, and instead align with an organisation’s broader strategic and people needs.

Before going into this in greater detail, I thought I would start by sharing with you a story.

Very recently, both myself and our electrician were visiting our own mini construction project (my wife and I are in the middle of building a new house) and whilst gaining access to the site we rather precariously, had to navigate our way around a poorly planned and executed lifting operation (pallets of tiles being unloaded from a truck).

Somewhat to my surprise, the electrician walked into the site regardless (even though it meant crouching under a suspended load) however, I felt I shouldn’t do the same and so told him that I would be with him in a minute, at which time I engaged with those managing the lift and after a little deliberation, we agreed that we could improve how the lift was being executed.

Once agreed, I quickly made my way back to the electrician and we continued with our inspection of the electrical work.

A few moments later, a worker walked by us without wearing a hardhat and halfway through explaining something, the electrician stopped, gestured to me and said, (half-jokingly, half-seriously) – “you should say something to him, what with you being ‘in safety’ and all…”

Fortunately, the worker must have overheard us, because he immediately put his hand on his head, acknowledging that he had forgotten to put on his hardhat. He then retraced his steps, put his hardhat on and, at least in the eyes of the electrician, ‘corrected his error’.

So why share this anecdote with you?

Well, simply put, I think this story encapsulates where we have ended up and how, over these last 30 years in particular, there seems to have been both a trivialisation around what it actually required to safeguard people and, a view that the primary purpose of safety is to ‘catch people’ doing something wrong and penalise them for doing it.

Over the preceding days, I reflected on this episode further and my initial incredulity soon shifted towards a feeling of embarrassment.

Fundamentally, I felt compelled to ask myself whether; I wanted to continue to remain a part of something that the vast majority of people now viewed as trivial and interventionist or; was their still an opportunity to shift the focus and bring both the concept and the profession, into the modern age?

In line with this question, I decided to collect my thoughts, embrace the work of key researchers and outline how, by moving past traditional thinking and constructs, we may still be able to create a better and more sustainable outcome for all those who require a modern and responsible form of safeguarding.

The Evolution of Safety in the 21st Century

Professor Erik Hollnagel, in his book; Safety-I and Safety-II – The Past and Future of Safety Management, cleverly puts forward the view that there are now various forms of safety.

Safety-I, or the traditional/conventional approach (synonymous with late 20th century industrial safety models and programs), is defined as; “the pursuit of a condition where nothing goes wrong”. Building off of this definition, he goes on to say (the irony isn’t lost on him) that to safeguard this condition, people focus on situations where something actually went wrong e.g. an accident.

Meanwhile, Safety-II, is (not unsurprisingly) defined by Hollnagel as; “the pursuit of a condition where as many things as possible go right (under varying conditions)”. He suggests that Safety-II embraces variability and recognises that complex systems do not align with a rules based and overly simplistic set of ‘dos and don’ts’.  In essence, Safety-II proposes that we need to build resilient systems that can adjust to cope with unpredictable conditions.

In addition to Hollnagel’s Safety-II concept, Professor Sidney Dekker’s ‘Safety Differently’ concept(s) has, in recent years, also gained significant momentum. Dekker himself acknowledges that, on an ideological basis, there are a lot of similarities between ‘Safety Differently’ and the Safety-II approach; albeit Dekker suggests that his approach is more focused on the people aspect and the opportunity that can be derived from harnessing human potential. Said differently – he firmly sees people as the solution, not the problem.

Another differentiator stems from how these concepts are formulated, and subsequently disseminated, with Dekker’s approach representing more a suite of concepts, all cleverly badged-up under the ‘Safety Differently’ banner, whereas the Safety-II concept is more self-contained, albeit with various supporting models.

In addition to the relatively well-known models of Dekker and Hollnagel, a number of other concepts such as; Human and Organisational Performance (HOP), High Reliability Organisations (HRO) and Social Physiology of Risk have also crept into the safety vernacular and toolkit.

Positively, all of these models (albeit some more so than others) are challenging existing safety paradigms and in particular the view that human beings are ‘the problem’ and something that ‘need to be fixed’.

They are also recognising that complexity and variability are an inevitable part of today’s complex ‘systems’ and so are reinforcing the idea that organisations must embrace this phenomenon, particularly when assigning and executing work.

The High Reliability Organisation (HRO) concept, made famous by Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe in their book ‘Managing the Unexpected’ suggests that to deal with this variability, organisations (or systems) need to become more ‘mindful’ and, as consequence, will become more resilient.

To achieve this holistic mindfulness and ultimately a more resilient system, a number of key characteristics are highlighted both within HRO and Safety-II models:

  • Controls – Develop and deploy the appropriate levels of control commensurate with the levels of risk present in ‘the system’.
  • Reframing success – Success to be defined by as many things as possible going right, as opposed to focusing exclusively on what went wrong.
  • Chronic unease – whilst success needs to be reframed with an accentuation of the positive, organisations must remain hyper-sensitive to the possibility of things going wrong.
  • Performance variability – It must be viewed as being inevitable, thereby enabling it to be considered, when defining suitable levels of control for the management/containment of risk.
  • Performance monitoring – Predictive tools should be used to actively seek out significant threats to overall system resilience.
  • Resilience vs. Safety – Challenge the old adage that ‘every accident is preventable’, by having people focus more on the successful containment of unexpected events.
  • Redundancy – In the event of failure, ensure the correct level of back-up is in place to ensure appropriate containment and recovery.
  • Deference to expertise – Irrespective of rank, actively seek input and expertise from those ‘doing the work’.
  • People valued and seen as a critical to overall success – create a culture where people feel ‘cared for’ and provided with the required knowledge and skills to enable them to operate successfully.

Engendering a Positive Human Contribution

I have touched on ‘Safety Differently’ above and how Sidney Dekker puts forward the idea that the human being is there to be harnessed and, contrary to more traditional thinking, the solution to a lot of today’s safety challenges.

Professor Dekker has written multiple books on this topic and has produced a documentary (film) on his ‘Safety Differently’ concepts, being put into practice. I would encourage people to check out the website www.safetydifferently.com, should you wish to discover more information.

As part of this article however, I would like to highlight a model which puts forward a similar way of thinking to Dekker, albeit from a very different context and perspective. L. David Marquet in his book; Turn the Ship Around, talks about the immense power that can be derived when we draw out the positive human contribution that people are capable of giving.

He goes on to say (somewhat counterintuitively for most of us) that today’s leaders (hierarchical leaders) must actually learn ‘to give control away’, thus allowing those who are doing the work, to have control, over how it should be done.

Marquet believes that in this kind of an environment, people not only feel socially more connected, but that they are also far more intrinsically motivated to do what is required, thus giving organisations far greater mental horsepower, to deal with some of today’s complex problems.

Marquet, an ex-commander in the US Nuclear Navy Submarine Fleet, encountered a tired, dejected and demotivated crew, however rather than revert to type and take control as ‘the captain’ (leader), he gave control to his crew and empowered them to make things better.

His book outlines, how, by investing in his people, both the crew and the captain, together, ensured that the USS Santa Fe rose to the top of its fleet and began winning awards for performance and morale/culture. In addition, an unusual number of officers and enlisted crew moved into positions of increased responsibility.

Importantly, Marquet also highlights, in his Intent-Based Leadership™ approach, that it is critical to get the balance right between; how much control and decision-making authority we give, and the ability and clarity of the person receiving that authority, to know what to do with it, once given that level of control.

Marquet confirms that clarity and competence are the building blocks of his model and is careful to stress that having a highly trained and capable crew, despite their underperformance prior to him joining the submarine, gave him the ability to do what he did.

This acknowledgment around the need to apply due levels of care, and assess the readiness of people, prior to ‘jumping in’ has, unquestionable relevance for organisations that may be contemplating, sometime in the future, a move towards a human centric and/or people focused model for safety.

In a safety transformational context, an organisation that decides to bin previous efforts and replace them with a human centric approach, without first understanding whether people are prepared to embrace such an approach, would be akin to Marquet deciding to replace his whole crew (simply because of the original crew’s underperformance) and replacing them with enthusiastic, but unproven crew members. He refrained from this and the results speak for themselves.

Safety in a Broader System context

In terms of systems-based thinking and how ‘the system’ can also help us focus on the presence of good, as opposed to lack of bad, again we are at an interesting stage of our evolution.

I have touched earlier on resilience and reliability and I reinforced why I believe both to be critical elements in ensuring safer outcomes. I would now like to turn to another element which, arguably, has been the Achilles heel of many a safety approach.

The Safety-II concept, as outlined, talks about the importance of having safety aligned with both the core operating, and success parameters, of a business.

It proposes that safety be converted into something which supports, augments and facilitates the everyday activities of an organisation, as opposed to the commonly held viewed today that whilst important, it needs to be run on the periphery and more often than not, separate to core business.

In the latter part of the 20th century, a ‘Safety Management System’ became a critical part of an organisation’s conventional safety model. Unintentionally, but unquestionably, this led to the creation of parallel and competing systemic goals e.g. organisations run a ‘system’ to deliver on strategy and deliver financial returns, whilst a safety person/department, runs a separate safety management system to ‘keep people safe’. Ultimately, this created two negative outcomes;

  1. Safety operating ‘on’ the business, but noticeably outside core business and/or;
  2. Safety unintentionally (for the most part) burdening the business with an administrative-heavy set of policies and procedures, which don’t necessarily link to how ‘work gets done’.

Perhaps therefore the single most anticipated benefit from Safety-II (and other similar models) is the possibility of amalgamating an organisation’s safety goals, with its business and strategic goals, thus ensuring safety becomes more integral and aligned with overall business success and vice-versa.

As highlighted with the people-focused models of Marquet and others, the biggest challenge to adopting this more integrated systems-thinking, will be an inability from those tasked with aligning safety system elements, with broader organisational systems and context, to actually be able to carry this off successfully. Said differently, the ‘safety manager’ of the future will need to demonstrate skills and competencies that go well beyond that of a good technician or a good administrator, if such integration is to take place.

I primarily say this because in so many instances today, those trying to align safety with business goals either; don’t have the necessary skills to carry out this task, nor; are they spending enough time trying to understand what a business may actually require.


Unquestionably, Safety, like other disciplines will be left behind if it remains wedded to outdated concepts around ‘how work gets done’ and how safety needs to be done.

Despite emerging positivity around Safety-II, and other similar models (HRO, ‘Safety Differently’, etc..), the harsh reality is that today most organisations remain firmly wedded to conventional thinking and, even those that are trying to ‘push the envelope’ and embrace some of these new approaches, unfortunately still tend to treat these concepts as ‘a shiny new toy’ and inexplicable ‘bin’ previously adopted approaches in their haste to implement a new initiative and new idea.

That being said, the ideas and concepts put forward in this article do, I believe offer a genuine opportunity to break the negative paradigm that has crept into safety; however, we must tread carefully and avoid the tendency to suggest that everything that went before is either outdated, or irrelevant.

As stated in the article, Hollnagel refers to the more traditional 20th century version of Safety as; ‘Safety-I’ and while helpful in categorising conventional thinking and differentiating it from the novel, ‘Safety-II’ based thinking of recent years; it has, it could be argued, unintentionally, led to this illusory correlation and a sense that ‘Safety-I’ was bad and thus needed replacing with something new and novel.

Similarly, ‘Safety Differently’ could, to many, suggest that it is ‘different’ to what went before, thus potentially implying that older models were bad and this new way of thinking is better. Once more, this is not intentional, however those who do not invest in understanding this concept, could be motivated to do ‘Safety Differently’ to the detriment of everything else.

I would therefore urge that people embrace and learn as much as they possibly can about all (not just the ones I have highlighted in this article) of these emerging safety concepts but would also caution people into believing that these and only these, are the concepts that will sustain improvement on into the future.

Ideally, people should spend equal amounts of time understanding whether these new ideas and concepts can be merged with, or built onto, the more positive foundational work, as detailed in ‘Safety-I’.

In addition, the safety professional (is that even the correct term?) of the 21st century, will need to fundamentally shift their thinking and approach their role, not from a position of; what cannot be done, and/or what is it that I can prevent..?, but more from the perspective of; how can I enable the people and overall system to thrive, thus positively contributing to the overall success of my organisation?

Approaching the challenge this way will mean that people will need to embrace their organisation, be curious, have a penchant for caring about people’s needs and, perhaps most importantly of all, rely on data and facts when it comes to deciding where and how best to dedicate their efforts.

They will also need to leave behind the dogma of their only being ‘one way’ or ‘one model’, and instead embrace variability and change, be willing to understand better the holistic needs of their respective organisations and perhaps most importantly enable people to come up with smart and resilient solutions.

The future Safety leader will be fully integrated into the organisation and will be actively empowering people to create resilient and sustainable solutions.

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