There Must be a Better Way – Introducing a New Era in Safety

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Improving one’s safety performance has become a burning issue for many organisations. The strategies being employed simply haven’t delivered the results they were hoping for. It is evident that the old adage of “you cannot expect different results by keep doing the same thing” is very applicable here. There is a definite call to a new approach to safety. Yet, before we answer that call it is important to know where we have come from and where we are going. Stan Antonsen divided the history of safety management into three phases:i

  1. Punishment-based: This approach to safety comes from the mind-set that people are the source of all error. The belief is that accidents are the outcome of unsafe actions of individuals. Improving safety is done by finding the guilty parties and disciplining them. In doing so the problem has been successfully dealt with. Thus there is no need to search further for systematic conditions. This tactic is deeply rooted in classic behavioural psychology. In Sidney Dekker’s book “The Field Guide to Understanding Human Error”, he and other influential thought leaders such as E Scott Geller are strongly opposed to this philosophy. They advocate that human error is merely a symptom of problems deeper within complex systems. “The assumption is that people can simply choose between making errors and not making them – independent of the world around them.”ii The reality is nobody comes to work to deliberately cause an accident. We need to be cognisance of the fact that people make decisions with the intent of doing a good job. Their decision making process made sense to them at that moment otherwise they wouldn’t have made them. If we truly want to understand human error we need to find out why it made sense to them. If it made sense to them it is possible it will make sense to others, thus there is a chance it can be repeated. Dekker argues that mistakes are the beginning point, not the conclusion. It is from this perspective that we are able to find the root cause so that we can learn from it and ensure that it doesn’t reoccur. When the assumption is that people are the source of trouble the outcome is always predictable; additional training, adding tighter monitoring or disciplinary action.iii From my personal experience I’ve learned that if things go wrong it is critical to find a better way to understand the context of decisions that were made by the persons involved.
  1. Bureaucratic approach: Companies adopting this outlook practice the “prescribing in advance” view to safety. Leaders believe that the more rules and work instructions they can introduce, the more they can regulate people’s behaviour. The downside is safety becomes the responsibility of management and it is their duty to create safe working conditions through control.iv When an incident happens management fee22 that by upgrading their protocols it will eradicate the problem from ever happening again. “It relies on achieving control through measures and policies calling for compliance”.v The problem however is that by adding or trying to enforce policies does not guarantee compliance. In fact, according to James Reason, it can escalate the problem. Hence the saying “too much control is no control”. Even though a policy is in place it can still be misunderstood, ignored or circumvented. In addition, no amount of procedures will be able to cover all the possible safe responses needed in the constantly changing and array of unsafe working conditions or Reason highlights the shortcomings by siting examples of where companies added new and improved procedures only to see their accident rate increase. In recent years it has become very popular amongst more progressive organisations to attempt to influence people’s behaviour through the application of behaviour based safety (BBS) processes. Companies that went through this phase now realise that these so-called “BBS” programs are actually compliance programs in disguise, still indicating their employee’s “at-risk” behaviour as the core problem and influencing them to conform to a required set of behaviours and rules.
  1. Cultural approach: This phase came to the forefront from the growing interest in the role that culture plays on organisational dynamics. This is very relevant as to how culture influences safety. If you have a safety management perspective, your focus will be on the formal elements of safety, while the psychological view takes people’s attitudes, values and perspectives into consideration. The cultural approach places its attention on the informal and social interactions that impact safety.vii Andrew Hale pointed out that there is more than enough evidence to prove that an over emphasis on the structural elements of safety is not working.viii There is conflict between the formal work requirements and the informal practices. I have yet to consult with a company where it isn’t abundantly clear that working safely is paramount. Yet there is an obvious dissonance or disconnect from what is proclaimed to be a value to that which is practiced. Managers must first find out what “behind the scenes” cultural forces influence people, before they will start to understand, why they make the decisions they do. Only then will they be able to address these underlying causes and find the right solutions necessary to create the safety culture they desire. One such challenge, we see on a regular basis, is that workers have a perception that production pressures requires them to adjust, deviate or short-cut time consuming safe work practices (whether it is true or not is another discussion). Recently I was part of a morning’s safety meeting where there was a strong plea for working safely. It wasn’t hours later when a manager arrived at the scene and started making threats that people would lose their jobs if they didn’t pick up the pace. This message was taken literally by the employees that they must work faster at any cost because they don’t want to lose their jobs. Whether that was the manager’s intention or not is up for debate, however, because this was a regular occurrence, a culture has been created where they talk about safety but in reality working quickly, even if it means compromising on safety, is the true value (“the way we do things round here”). The hypocrisy within this company; is that if someone is caught contravening one of the procedures, they are sternly reprimanded or disciplined. If this company truly wants to see genuine change they are going to have to establish a new paradigm that while meeting production demands is crucial to its survival it cannot be at the cost of working safely. Only when workers see and believe that their jobs are not in jeopardy when they work safely (sometimes at the cost of production as an exception) and feel comfortable that the company sees any refusal to perform unsafe work as carrying positive intent, unsafe behaviour will continue to be the norm.

It is these types of underlying subtleties that can sabotage an organisation’s safety culture. Cameron and Quinn, experts in cultural transformation, outright declared that all change initiatives that don’t factor the powerful ingredient of organizational culture are doomed for failure.ix Organizations are naturally prone to returning to their old ways of doing things. Lasting change can only take place when the fundamental drivers of a company’s working culture are addressed. If companies will not make significant real changes to the underlying values that make up their organization’s culture there is little hope for any enduring improvement in safety performance.


  • Antonsen, S. (2009). Safety Culture: Theory, Method and Improvement. Surrey, England: Ashgate.
  • Dekker, S (2006). The Field Guide to Understanding Human Error. Hampshire, England: Ashgate.
  • Dekker, S (2006). The Field Guide to Understanding Human Error. Hampshire, England: Ashgate.
  • Barling, J. & Hutchinson, I. (2000). Commitment vs. Control Based Safety Practices, Safety Reputation, and Perceived Safety Culture. Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences, 14, 76-84.
  • DeJoy, D. M. (2005). Behaviour Change Versus Culture Change: Divergent Approaches to Managing Workplace Safety. Safety Science, 43, 105-129.
  • Reason, J. (1990). Human Error. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Antonsen, S. (2009). Safety Culture: Theory, Method and Improvement. Surrey, England: Ashgate.
  • Hale, A. (2000). Culture’s Confusions. Safety Science, 34, 1-14.
  • Cameron, K. S., & Quinn, R. E. (2006). Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture: Based on the Competing Values Framework (Rev. ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dr Brett Solomon is a senior partner at Saacosh and is currently involved in a number of safety culture change initiatives with progressive thinking organisations such as PPC, Everite, Glencore Alloys and Anglo American’s Sishen Iron Ore Mine.