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John Green on the Future of Health and Safety and its Practitioners

The future of safety and its practitioners | John Green (Expert Interview #3)


In this interview, we get the expert views of John Green, CSO / EVP of Aecon. With John, we look at safety differently and the future of safety for its practitioners, in addition to the theories used in HSE practice and the thought behind them.

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– [Paul] Our next interview is with John Green, chief safety officer at Aecon. John has worked in the oil and gas, petrochemical, electronics, heavy engineering, construction, and aviation sectors. He has over 40 years of experience of industrial safety, and he is recognized and respected as someone who does safety differently, and is a major force for change in how industrial safety is delivered.


Aecon Group Inc. is a construction company in Canada providing services to private and public sector clients in its three core segments of infrastructure, industrial, and concessions. Aecon produces construction materials including asphalt and aggregate materials and pre-construction and prefabrication materials developed in eight company-owned fabrication facilities across Canada.


Today, we’re going to speak to John about the future of safety and its practitioners. We’ll look at the theories and processes being used across EHS practice globally right now, and these theories, are they really just bogus? So today, we get the pleasure of speaking with Mr. John Green. And I’m really excited to interview you today, John. And thank you ever so much for attending the HSE North America Congress.


Hope you’d had a great time. We’re going to talk about the future of safety and its practitioners. We’re going to look at the theories, perhaps, and processes being used across the EHS practiced globally right now. And are these theories, I guess in a funny way, just bogus? What does the future, if you like, look like? And how do we get practitioners to implement a future safety strategy 2.0?


– [John] Right.


– So I guess the first question I wanted to ask was, obviously, wealth of experience, you know, 40 years plus of extensive experience in safety. But I’m sure you’ve come across many different site safety improvement methods and theories. So there’s the Heinrich triangle, of course, zero harm, I mean, zero anything, really, and of course, Safety Differently, which I know you’re very passionate about, and Safety 2.


Have these and do these theories, from your perspective, really work?


– So it’d be pretty cool if you just said wealth of experience and not 40 years. There you go, never mind. I think, so it’s become quite popular at the moment to discredit some of the theories from the past because Safety Differently and Safety 2 have such a different way of looking at the world, through a different lens, and looking at different things, and it’s become popular to simply dismiss the past as being, you know, having been the wrong thing to do effectively.


I think that’s unfair. I think, just about everyone enters the world of safety as a professional with a view to doing the right thing. I think we’ve actually got quite a high moral standard in the profession in terms of wanting to do what is right. So I can only believe that some of those theories that you talked about, the Heinrich triangle, and one way of working a view of Taylorism, that sort of thing, at the time, made sense to the people who developed them.


So there was a local rationale around these things making sense at the time, much in the same way that I suspect, in 40 years from now, people may well look back at the stuff that we are doing, and think, “Why the hell did they think of that? You know, that’s really dumb. Why did they ever think that would work?” So I like to think that, you know, there’s a contemporary theory that says, “It made sense to us at the time.”


I don’t think anyone does stuff that they don’t believe in, and they don’t believe will work. Having said that, I also think there are some of those theories that are fundamentally flawed, and the danger with these approaches is they just don’t recognize when they’ve reached the shelf life. And I think many of those approaches, which are really founded on the notion of control and constraint, principally of the workforce, have now reached to a sell-by date.


So in fact, the approaches that have got as far as they have done now, and they’ve got us far, you know, we’ve got unprecedented low levels of accident rates, we’ve got lower levels of harm in organizations than we’ve ever seen before, but we haven’t been able to affect serious accident rates and fatalities in the same way. In fact, if anything, we’re seeing them increase now.


So there’s a problem with that. So I think that control and constraint, additional layers of bureaucracy, more administration, just more safety effort is actually counterproductive. And we need to now look at something which is entirely different, which is the fundamental premise that underpins Safety Differently, or Safety 2, or the new view which runs counter to some of those beliefs.


That rather than people being the problem within an organization, the biggest problem that needs control, people are the solution. They have an inherent knowledge and an insight into work that allows them to manage risks better than some external bureaucracy might. That once upon a time, probably it was reasonable to assume that safety was the absence of accidents because we were having so many accidents, what else would you look at as a morally responsible employer?


Where else would you look at? But we’re now down to such low levels of accidents, and when they do occur, they tend to be serious, that we can no longer use that as a measure of performance. We have to look elsewhere. So we have to see safety now as the capacity of the organization really to manage change on a daily basis.


And the result of those for us, too, is we need to strip back in the bureaucracy. The performance drag commercially and operationally that, that bureaucracy is putting on the business is excessive. And I’m not saying that rules are bad, because they aren’t, they make sense, but they only make sense in some situations. Rules make sense where the risks are high and the cost of failure is extreme.


That’s when rules make sense. So we have to find that sweet spot in the organization, for the right number of rules, for the appropriate circumstances, but free the workforce up to adapt and be flexible for the rest of their operational working time. So that’s a contemporary theory at the moment.


And like I say, it may well run its shelf life as well as the others have done.


– Yeah. I mean, I hear it a lot in interviews that we do that it’s a very bureaucratic view of safety. You mentioned trying to look into the future in sort of 40 years plus time. How do you perceive, I guess, and project the future of safety? And would you agree this is a Safety 2.0 or as some call Safety 2, you know, how you define it?


– Well, that’s certainly going to be part of it. I mean, if I could predict the future, I’d probably move out of the corporate world and into consulting, and probably make a rather nice living out of it. I can tell you what we need to do in the short to medium term. And that is shift this focus from workers being the biggest risk to controlling organizations to seeing workers as the source of insight into risk management and risk control.


I think that’s a fundamental shift. And I think the reason for that is not that the world of safety has changed. The reason for that is the world of work has changed. Once upon a time, we imported workers from agriculture to work in factories, and there was an issue with workers being aware of the risks that they faced, simply because they hadn’t come across them before.


But the world of work isn’t like that anymore. We employ experts, and whether they’re steel fixers, carpenters, laborers, airline pilots, or engineers, they have a deep knowledge of what they’re being asked to do, a far deeper knowledge than the bureaucrats who, once upon a time, controlled that factory shop floor. So that world of work has changed.


Unfortunately, the authority over that world of work hasn’t shifted. It stayed with the bureaucrats, and it needs now to shift to the workforce. So the world of work, the world of safety is now predicated on the notions which are implicit within Safety 2, I think. That doesn’t mean that there’s Safety 3, right?


It doesn’t mean there’s a Safety 4 after it. It might be something completely different, you know, something that we haven’t even thought of yet. But I think what Safety 2 allows us to do is it allows us to look at things differently, so the workforce, the definition of safety, and the administration, but it also allows us to look at different things.


So whilst our focus has always been on failure in safety and this war on error, this constant search for ever diminishing returns on negatives, we now see normal work and successful work as being the areas that should interest us. So how do we know what’s happening when work is successful? Do we believe that procedures are being followed?


If not, what is it we can do about it? Can we streamline those procedures? Can we bring the workforce closer to the procedure control or procedural control closer to the workforce? So I think there is a philosophical shift in safety that I suspect will last for a long time, and really does make Safety 2 different from Safety 1 whilst not dismissing everything that Safety 1 has achieved.


– Sure. That’s an evolution, isn’t it? An evolution of process, and it’s going to, in effect, it’s going to affect the practitioners. So we see, much like technology is booming and the pace of change is so rapid, and we’re seeing a lot of millennials and Gen Zs, and we’re trying to encourage the millennials and Gen Zs into this market, into this industry.


But do you see any challenges in them perhaps adopting these methods and approaches or…?


– No, I don’t think so. You’re right in the sense that it’s an evolution, but it’s an evolution of an extreme type. And let me tell you a story that I think gives you an example. If you’re in Australia, it’d be ironman, if it’s London, it’s the marathon. So it’s some form of extreme sport event. And you go on to your doctor and you say, “I’m going to take part in the Brisbane ironman.”


And the doctor looks at you, and you’re 34 stone, right, and he says, “Hey, man.”


– Not me, then.


– Yeah. “Man, there ain’t no way you are doing the ironman.” And you go, “Why the hell not?” So, “You’re horrendously overweight for a kickoff, you know.” So, “Well, what do I need to do?” Well, him, “You need to lose some weight, man, before you do anything else.” So you go away, and you get down to 11 stone by dieting.


That’s the only way you can lose weight is by dieting. And you go back to the doctor and you say to the doctor, “I’m ready. Eleven stone, I can do this.” And the doctor says, “Well, no. You’re the right weight, man. But now, you got to get fat. Now, you have to build resilience so that when you do have a blowout, you’ll recover quickly. But we know that day after day after day, you’re managing that weight in a way that produces the outcome that we want.”


Now, those two strategies are very different, yeah? Weight loss, exercise and fitness, they are totally different, right, but they have the one goal, the participation in the ironman. You couldn’t do the fitness one without losing weight. So Safety 1, I like to think of, is losing weight. We’ve got rid of all of these accidents that we don’t need to have that are preventable, and we know they’re preventable because they haven’t come back.


Having done that, hey, we can’t put any more weight on, so whatever it is we do with Safety 2, which is the resilient piece, we can’t allow weight to be piled back on. We might have a blowout every night, we might go out on a Friday night have a couple of beers, that might happen. But we recover quickly. So those two approaches are fundamentally very different. You wouldn’t call fitness an evolution of weight loss, but complementary in the sense that you’re aiming for the same outcome, a resilient individual or a resilient organization at the end.


So it is evolution, but I don’t want people to underplay the amount of revolution that’s in that evolution. So that’s the first thing. So on the millennials, I think this approach really fits them very, very well because what we’re suggesting is the need for an adaptive workforce, a workforce that can compensate, can absorb, can respond to change instantly when the world of work changes.


I think that is more intuitively in line with what young people think than it is with traditional engineering mindset or a mindset that’s come from the ’50s and the ’60s. So I think it fits well with them. I think some of the things that we’re trying to do with Safety 2 resonates with them.


So things like game theory is not something that you would expect to see in safety, but it’s something we’ve started to use to develop a kind of an edge to a safety program. So rather than seeing safety as one long battle toward zero, this infinite game, we have to see safety as a series of finite games within this infinite game.


So much like a multilevel game, you never get to the end of the game, in these digital…you just don’t get to the end of the game. But you complete stages of it, and you get feedback immediately on completing that stage. You fail forward, you succeed at various different intervals and various different stages in the games.


We need to start thinking of our safety programs in those ways. They need to be feedback intense, so we need to be telling people how they’re getting on. They need to allow people to fail, as games do, and restart or restart from [inaudible]. They need to fail quickly, and they need to fail forward. So I think if we are clever about how we build the way that Safety 2 appears to millennials, and Zs, and Ys, I think we have a high chance of success with those groups.


I think the other thing that fits well with them is that no longer is a job a job for life, in fact, no longer is a career a career for life, you know, millennials are switching jobs and switching careers. And I think the skills that we are trying to advance and stress in the Safety 2 world, the skills of being courageous, risk-taking, adaptive, as opposed to technical skills.


I think that, again, resonates with the modern-day working individuals much more than a world of control and constraint. So I don’t see a difference really. I can see an opportunity, in fact, in dealing with modern generations. There is nothing appealing to a Generation Z about a rule which is about control, constraint, and policing.


– Oh, absolutely.


– That has largely been what our rule has been all about until the introduction of, you know, Safety 2 or Safety Differently thinking.


– Well, John, I think, on behalf of our viewers and the HSE Network, you know, you’re an inspiration certainly to the market and to the industry. You know, your thoughts, and your feelings, and some of the papers that you’ve written have really helped shape the change management that we need within this space to help reduce incidents and save lives. And on behalf of me and the viewers, I’d like to say thank you.


It’s a pleasure having you today, and hopefully, see you again on HSE Network soon.


– Been a pleasure, mate.


– Thank you, John.