23rd Oct, 2019 Read time 7 minutes

What are the fundamental principles behind Safety Differently?

Whilst in many industries safety is still viewed as a paper-driven process reliant on compliance on documentation many minds in the field are looking to spread awareness about how the approach to safety can be brought into the 21st century. This is where ‘Safety Differently’ has come from.

The ideology found its routes in the mind of john green who felt that the traditional health and safety process did not do enough to meet the challenges of a modern workplace. Here are the main principles of Safety Differently and how to start implementing it in your workplace.

What is Safety Differently?

The traditional view of health and safety takes a very process-driven approach, with a focus on compliance and little thought given to the human side of the industry. Safety Differently tries to incorporate people as part of the solution, with a focus on working out how things can be done well instead of focusing on how can we prevent accidents and bad circumstances from occurring.

Critiques of Safety Differently often purport that it works in theory, but is perhaps less applicable in practice. As this is a new way of thinking about safety there are precious few clear-cut case studies of where Safety Differently has clearly improved. However more and more health and safety practitioners

We interviewed one of the founders of the Safety Differently movement Erik Hollnagel to get his thoughts on what this safety philosophy is all about. Erik is one of our top content partners and we are pleased to work with him when looking at the movement.



Key Quotes and thoughts from Erik


Erik has worked on developing the practices behind Safety Differently for years, and some of the interesting points he raised were around the focus on negatives. He draws on his experiences and view of the Danish Government which often implements laws that prevent a failure from happening. Erik talks about developing a change to focus on asking the question ‘how can we make things go well’ in the future.


 Well, I think you already hinted at it. But we all want to avoid accidents and harm and injury and personally, in work, in the companies, and in the nations, of course. And traditionally, we’ve sort of done that by looking at what went wrong and say how can we prevent that?

And 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?

Erik goes on to talk about why this focus on failure is not problematic from a health and safety point of view, but also from a profitability one.

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.



Principle 1: People offer the solution not the problem

A criticism often leveled at old HSE practice is how they view personnel in an organisation as the main problem in health and safety issues without focusing on the positives.

Safety differently poses the idea that safety should consider people within the organisation as the solution. This is achieved by focusing on successes in an HSE context. This can be through the praise and recognition of activities that are beneficial for health and safety.


Principle 2: Safety is about instilling positives not the absence of negatives

The safety differently approach looks to encourage more of the ground level staff to take on ownership of the safety processes in an organisation. Part of this stems from human psychology.

A lot of research discusses the poor impact negative reinforcement has on workers in both health and safety and a wider organisational context. Safety differently encourages workers to praise others and instead of warning against negative incidents, to put in place actionable steps that give employees a process to work towards in regards to health and safety.

The practice of focusing on developing the positives is a method that is used in many different aspects of organisational performance. An example may be not looking at a specific incident and focusing on the failures that led to it, but looking at the wider picture and taking what normally goes well, and working out how that can be carried forward in the future.

To some extent in health hand safety, you have to consider the negatives (especially in serious incidents), but looking at it in a wider context will always provide a better perspective.


Principle 3: Safety should be an ethical responsibility, not a bureaucratic activity

Many areas of health and safety are concerned purely with compliance and this often leads to a lack of focus on human performance and the analysis of the root cause of safety issues. This is one of the reasons why the new focus on wellbeing has come through in health and safety circles.

One of the ways that you can implement it is through liaising with front line staff and working out how their processes can be improved to increase their health and safety performance.


Some tips on how to implement safety differently in your organisation

Whilst many attend conferences on safely differently and are enthused by the prospect of implementing it like many professional changes they can be overlooked. Here are some practical changes you can make in your workplace to start implementing Safety Differently:

  • Create a feedback system in which your employees can review their work processes from a health and safety perspective
  • Give more input and decision making abilities to ground-level employees so policy is changed in the factory, not in the boardroom.
  • Reward and reinforce positive steps in your employee’s behaviour towards health and safety


Safety differently as a concept is relatively new in the health and safety field. This is one of the reasons why it has been the subject of academic and professional criticism. In some respect having a modern interpretation of the traditional health and safety philosophy will give you the benefits of safety differently without having to completely rewrite the rule book.

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