29th Sep, 2020 Read time 12 minutes

What is Safety Differently? An interview with Founder Erik Hollnagel


This article combines some of the key parts of the interview conducted between Paul Clark and Professor Erik Hollnagel. The Interview took place at HSE UK in 2020, and some of the key takeaways include:

  • The working definition of Safety Differently
  • How organisations can implement Safety Differently
  • Some of the notable criticisms of Safety Differently

Safety Differently is one of the key methodologies becoming known in health and safety and the HSE Network recognises the importance of giving the ideas attention.


About Erik Hollnagel

Erik Hollnagel is a practising professor at Jönköping University and is one of the main minds behind the Safety Differently movement.

Erik is one of the newest content partners to join the HSE Network, and we are privileged to bring his academic insights forward in the discussions around better health and safety management.




Health and safety is a constantly evolving field with a certain amount of academic rigour behind it that tries to develop new ideas and improve on systems of the past that may be outdated. Now and then, new ideas emerge and one of the key ones that have attracted both fans and detractors in recent years is Safety Differently.


What is Safety Differently?

Safety Differently proposed a new way of managing the health and safety of those in the workplace. It follows the idea that safety should be followed as a grassroots practice with a focus on people as appose to the ever-increasing bureaucracy within an organisation (Dekker, 2014). People are not viewed as the problem; they are instead developed as the solutions. The question is asked of how can workers develop their skills to build a safer workplace?

Safety 2 is another name that is given to the Safety Differently movement, and it differentiates itself from Safety 1 which is viewed as the traditional approach. The following table illustrates some of the main differences between Safety I and Safety II (Hollnagel, Wears, Braithwaite (2015).


Safety I

Safety II

Focus on the errors Focus on the positives
Reactive approach Proactive approach
Accident causation Analyse what went right
Understand what goes wrong Understand what goes right



Safety Differently also proposes a new focus on ‘what’s going well’

In addition to the understood general principles behind Safety Differently, the movement also tries to reframe the discussion, by looking at how businesses can make things go well as a pose to stop things going wrong. To stop the chance of things going wrong, you should enhance the capacity for them to go right (Dekker, 2014).

Erik Hollnagel is one of the key minds behind the Safety Differently movement and in the HSE UK Congress we asked about this reframed concept.


Erik Hollnagel

I see that every time something happens in Denmark, where, from on a national level, the government says, oh we need to have a new law, a new rule so we make sure it doesn’t happen again in the future. But I think the point is you cannot become safe by preventing things from happening but you can turn it around and say how could we make sure that it goes well, instead of how can we prevent it from failing?

Also because if you put all your eggs in the preventing from failing basket then you’re investing in making sure that something does not happen which doesn’t create any profit. But if you turn it around and say, how can we make sure that it goes well then you’re investing in making sure that things happen that you would like to have which actually create a profit.

So I think from that point of view, it just makes more sense to look at things going well and try to make sure that more things go well. But then that requires that we look at things going well which we traditionally haven’t done in safety, we’ve only looked at the accidents.


This idea of focusing on how we can make situations go right helps to support the positive changes that can benefit the safety of organisations. In addition to this reframed focus, Sidney Dekker also proposes a few different points that should be considered when adopting Safety Differently.


  • You should not take past performance as a reliable indicator of future performance
  • The discussions around risk needed to be constantly revisited and looked at with different perspectives
  • Minority viewpoints need to be considered when looking at everyone needs to stay open-minded

These pointers should be considered alongside the fundamental principles of Safety Differently to try and achieve the best possible result within an organisation.


Why is there a focus on what’s going wrong?

Whilst traditional safety did have a focus on accidents, the new movement is not saying this method is entirely outdated. Indeed, the introduction of health and safety practices that follow the traditional route of accidents prevention will likely have a benefit over no health and safety practices at all. We asked Erik Hollnagel why the traditional focus of safety through the accident prevention perspective has been dominant for so long.


Erik Hollnagel

“we’re all concerned about when we are hurt and then one of our loved ones or friends or relatives are hurt, I mean, nobody wants that. But I think if you look at the history of safety, then the first book on really popular book on safety was called The Industrial Accident Prevention from 1931, it was written by a man, Heinrich, who was a superintendent in an insurance company.

And of course the insurance companies they don’t produce anything, I’m sure they’ll blast me for this, but not like a factory or car manufacturer and so on. But their focus is accidents and that’s why in his book, which is very eloquent and full of examples and even though it’s 90 years old now is still worth reading.

That’s why the focus became on accidents and that somehow stopped because he was a very convincing person and had very good arguments. I think we have sort of have stayed with that for that reason.”


As Erik states, this view of safety is a natural one to take. But the Safety Differently movement proposes the idea that good health and safety practices are occurring throughout the world, they are simply not given the attention they deserve. Erik stresses the need to ask, ‘why did this go well?’ as a means of adapting and learning for the future.


Erik Hollnagel


Well, I think the important point is to question this idea of nothing happens because that’s what people often say. They say, well, look at everyday activity and then they’ll say, “Well, yeah, but nothing happened.” By which they mean that nothing bad happened. But of course something happened.

I mean, it would be stupid to say that nothing happened because lots of things happen. Like we are on this resort here and everything happens, catering works and everything is in place so lots of things happened but we don’t notice it because they always happen and they always work and we just take them for granted, which we should. As, you know, normal individuals, but as safety experts, we shouldn’t take it for granted.

We should say, “But why did this go well? How can we learn from that? How can we improve that? Do other things work in the same way? And how can we benefit from that?”



Erik also suggests it is natural to get use to things that go well every day; it is in human nature to take things for granted. HSE Network Director Paul Clark also touched on the subject in our interview.


Paul Clark

Interestingly enough, I teach a lot of mindfulness in my CBT and it says about if you’ve got a string of notes, you only notice the loud notes, you don’t notice the gaps between.


Erik Hollnagel

– True, true. I mean, maybe the other example I use when I’m near the sea in a like a hotel by the beach and facing the sea. And the first night and the second night always hear the waves come crashing in and the third night I don’t hear them any longer.

It’s not because the waves have stopped crashing in. It’s because you get used to it.


Leading on from this, Paul also questioned the extent to which this change in focus is a change that could be achieved through behavioural safety.


Paul Clark

, is it a behavioral change, in terms of does that behavior come from the individual or because obviously we can’t change the things in the surrounding accidents and things that are going to happen around us from a safety perspective but we can change the way that we think and the way we behave, will that reduce incidents?


Erik Hollnagel

– I wouldn’t call it a behavioral change but it’s change of attitude or change of perspective and that’s when we refer to what we call safety one and safety two. To me, they’re two different perspectives, two different ways we’re looking that’s what happens, but what happens is what happens. So in that sense, it’s a change of…wouldn’t even say a change in mindset, it’s realizing there is an additional way of looking at things.

It’s not replacing one by the other, but it’s saying we can look at it this way, but we can also look at it this way and maybe if we combine them, we see more things than we did before. So I think that’s the way to go about it, it’s not a radical change and it’s not an either-or it’s both.


This fundamental reframing of the way we look at things does not have to be binary. As Erik states, it doesn’t have to be a radical change in the way we think and approaches safety, just a broadening of what could be possible. Because of this, the field of Safety Differently is often open to discussions about potential criticisms of the philosophy.


What are the criticisms of Safety Differently?

Whilst Safety Differently has been well received by many in the health and safety community some detractors feel it could be improved. For example, Safety Differently is not an academic fad. That is to stay it cannot be easily implemented with little change to the actual structures within an organisation. Because of this implementation may be challenging for some organisations.

Many who have practical experience in health and safety also do not view Safety Differently as being all that different. A lot of the practices that the philosophy promotes are already commonplace in many organisations.

Some have also mused that this focus on what is going well, may inadvertently detract from what is going wrong. Whilst this may be the case, Erik Hollnagel and the rest of the movement suggests that the Safety Differently philosophy, when implemented correctly, does not come at the detriment of traditional safety.


Safety Differently is a method that should be considered


During our interview with Erik he made clear that while Safety Differently is a way of thinking that is receiving a lot of traction within the industry, it should not be taken as the only way to manage health and safety. In the academic profession of health and safety, the ability to challenge ideas to develop new ones is crucial.

Erik Hollnagel is one of our expert health and safety content partners and we are always delighted to listen to his insights. Our interview with Erik covers some of the ideas around Safety Differently in more depth and our articles on the subject also look at the fundamentals of the Safety Differently philosophy.



Dekker, S., 2014. Safety differently: human factors for a new era. CRC Press.

Hollnagel, R., Wears, J., Braithwaite (2015) From Safety I to Safety II, A White Paper. National Library of Congress.


HSE Network
Article by: HSE Network

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