Do safety differently

Chapter 5: When your safety people are dejected, empower them differently. 

If you put your safety people in a job where they can mostly be reactive, distant, fragmented and defensive, you might easily end up in a downward spiral. More safety problems are identified from a distance (and probably misunderstood as deviations of some type, always by other people who should know better and try harder to comply). 

These problems are responded to, likely with additional compliance demands. Fragmented, haphazard, ill-coordinated ‘solutions’ are rolled out and implemented with no connection to work as actually done (except to make that work even harder). 

Pressure on workers to conform (or to develop more optic compliance) increases. Workers have to develop additional adaptations to work around the new constraints, surveillance and expectations, which creates an even greater distance between work-as-done and work-as-imagined. 

The consequences for safety management, and for how safety people might feel about themselves, are almost all negative. You probably know them well: blame culture, inappropriate resource allocation, increased goal conflicts, mismatches between making people responsible but without the resources or sufficient authority to live up to that responsibility; non-value-adding safety clutter, stale models of risk and operations, adversarial relationships, lack of systemic or coordinated interventions, a single focus on worker compliance, ever more investments in bureaucratic accountabilities to protect the organization and its leaders, and manipulated safety reporting metrics.  

No wonder your safety people might feel disempowered, cynical and resigned. 

But it doesn’t have to be that way. There is, as you might have noted, a strong connection between how your organization sees work and workers, and the role safety people end up having. Let’s see how that might be done differently; how you might empower your safety people differently. 

Focus on the safety of work, not the work of safety 

Most safety people run much less risk of becoming dejected if they are allowed to engage with the safety of work – instead of just the work of safety. The work of safety … consists of activities that supposedly have the primary purpose of managing safety. But in reality, the work of safety is a form of organizational or institutional work that has little to do with the safety of work. 

The work of safety … is necessary to persuade or placate stakeholders. The organization is worthy of its license to operate, because it’s got safety under control. 

If you look at it really crudely, then the work of safety is a kind of ‘PR’ exercise, an investment in public (and other) relations, a way to make the organization look good and continue with the blessing of others (including regulators, shareholders, the stock market, the surrounding community) to operate. 

You probably remember the ‘Looking Good Index’ from Chapter 1. It’s no wonder that the work of safety involves so much obsession around this LGI (or, in reality, the LTI and other similar numbers). 

That doesn’t mean that the work of safety is irrelevant; it has an important role to play, just like any public relations of liability management activity that allows your organization to keep operating. But it’s probably honest to acknowledge the extent to which your safety work is exactly that.  

As an example, one safety professional told us that SMS doesn’t stand for Safety Management System, but for Safety Marketing System. Because that is what the system does: it markets your safety to the regulator (and other stakeholders). It presents a picture to them that you know what you’re doing, that you know your risks and that you’ve got it all under control. That way, the organization can get on with its core business. 

The work of safety is primarily about persuading all those other people, convincing them that you’re good to keep going. It’s about how you look in the eyes of those stakeholders. 

The safety of work 

The work of safety, however, is distinct from the safety of work. Research keeps showing that the safety of work gets created, mostly, by those who do the work. Given this, what are some of the things that safety people could do to support this to happen, and make it even better? Have a look at the table below and then we’ll talk about it some.

The kinds of things safety people can do to support the safety of actual frontline work, rather than just performing the work of safety on behalf of their organization. 

Safety of work 

How to do this 

Why to do this 

Learn about everyday work-as-done. 

Engage with workers and gain their trust to understand how stuff actually gets done. 

Discover how safety is created every day by work-as-done. Learn about obstacles and difficulties that get in the way of getting stuff done. 

Support and improve work-as-done. 

Understand local practices and help workers with how to adapt better and safer. 

Safety interventions won’t have staying power if they don’t take work-as-done seriously. 

Find and try to reduce goal conflicts. 

Ask about and identify places where workers need to do multiple things simultaneously that (may) actually conflict. Help convince others to re-allocate operational resources to alleviate these goal conflicts. 

Goal conflicts are at the heart of deviances and drift into failure. Without understanding them, there’s neither any hope of being taken seriously by workers, nor of doing much that helps improve the safety of work. 

Facilitate information flows and coordinate actions. 

Create mechanisms to get information where it needs to be (even when it’s not welcome there). Coordinate actions across team boundaries to prevent fragmentation of safety initiatives. 

You have to get information to those who can make decisions about resources. You may need to prepare them to receive ‘bad’ news (ie that work-as-imagined is not the same as work-as-done) and that there are other ways to support safe working than telling workers to be compliant. 

Generate future operational scenarios. 

Try to sketch possible future scenarios that might come with operational or technological changes. 

The world is not static. Safety risks change as work changes. Without anybody looking out for them, the organization may unwittingly embrace risky operational changes or descend into techno-optimism. 

Help leaders and others make sacrifice judgments. 

Make trade-off decisions visible for organizational leaders and others, so that they know that there’s no free lunch. 

The organization has other priorities than safety, despite what it says, otherwise it wouldn’t exist. Economic and production pressures almost always interact with safety. Finding ways to make those interactions visible can support leaders and others in their decisions. 

Facilitate learning. 

Keep the model(s) of risk in an organization up to date. Find sources of blame. Hunt down anything that puts downward pressure on people’s openness and honesty (including an organization’s ‘Zero Harm’ policy or similar). 

Models of risk tend to go stale over time. What may cause incidents today can be very different from before the introduction of a particular technology or operational change. Without trust and confidence that people are in this together, there’s no basis for learning and improvement of any of this. 


You will recall from Chapter 2 that there are really cool ways to learn about work-as-done. Most workers are excited about the opportunity to talk about their work – if they know that you’re not about to judge them or hold them against some compliance framework. 

If you are genuinely interested they will notice, and you can win the trust necessary to learn about work-as-done. You get to understand the things that workers have to adapt around, the procedures and tools that don’t work, the resources that aren’t sufficient, the policies that are irrelevant, stale or out of date. 

The interesting thing is that a safety professional brings a particular lens to these conversations (yes, a ‘safety lens’) and probably also some knowledge about the wider organizational goals and constraints that may have eluded those who have their nose to the grindstone on the frontline somewhere. That means safety people can combine a range of perspectives to come up with novel insights, with richly informed ways of thinking about work and the organization that makes it (im-)possible. 

Risk foresight 

It’s a vital role that can help ‘unfreeze’ the organization and its leaders, and show some pathways to start moving along to reconcile production and safety demands. That, of course, can involve getting different teams together (eg technical and operational), and getting them to talk about the obstacles and crunches that show up on the frontline. They may otherwise not know about it, and they are probably both necessary to come to a solution. 

Safety people can help organizations sense early signs of trouble. All systems operate under (somewhat) degraded conditions all the time (because there’s no organization where everything is consistently working perfectly all the time!). Sometimes the organization is quite aware of such degradations, but it can also have become inured against the more chronic ones. 

If there are increases in uncertainties (for example: changes in technology, or new operational demands, or conditions like a huge new order or a different supplier), then it’s likely that safety risks will change as well, and possibly not (just) for the better. 

The possibility to create risk foresight is a unique contribution that safety people can make. That is much broader (and possibly radically different from) doing more traditional hazard or risk assessments, because the really interesting risks – the escalating, cascading ones – come from the interdependencies and interactions between all kinds of factors. 

Risk and hazard analyses traditionally don’t have the capability to model those. 

This is an extract taken from Chapter 5 of the 2022 book ‘Do Safety Differently’ by Sidney Dekker and Todd Conklin. Reproduced with permission. It is published by Pre Accident Media, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Available in paperback and as an e-book.

QUESTION: Sidney Dekker and Todd Conklin argue that H&S practitioners can become dejected if their role requires them to focus too much on the 'work of safety' (feeding the system) and too little on the 'safety of work'.
How often do you feel you spend more time managing safety systems and documentation rather than mixing with workers and learning about their work?

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