How safety became all about negatives – and how to do it differently

By John Green of Laing O’Rourke


I don’t know when it happened but it did.

Sometime, somewhere safety became all about negatives, all about bad stuff and stopping bad stuff happening and about nothing else.

I say this for a number of reasons. Firstly safety is linked to unwanted outcomes, when we ask our people to discuss safety they think about accidents, incidents and breakdowns or malfunctions. We frame safety not in terms of what we want but in terms of what we don’t want. Safety then is the absence of something – normally accidents.

We then go on to describe and examine the precursors to these events – errors, mistakes, shortcuts, deviations, breaking the rules or non-compliance.

Then we select from the vast array of tools at our disposal the means with which we will prevent these bad things happening – more rules, procedural compliance, barriers, limitations on behaviour, etc, and then we ask people to engage with this programme….. Really?

What this means for organisations

This view of safety as a means of managing deficits becomes increasingly problematic for successful organisations as over time they will have increasingly less and less to remove. Fewer accidents means fewer learning opportunities and organisations get locked into managing past deviations as a means of ensuring future success. This further deepens the negative view of safety.

I have absolutely no doubt that every safety professional approaches his or her task with the best intentions, that each one of us has the good of the organisation and everyone that works for it at heart. But surely our role has to be about much more than simply controlling and constraining work activity against some predetermined notion of what is right or normal?

We need to manage safety differently and this means a fundamental shift in our definition of safety, our view on the role of people in creating safety and how safety responsibility is organised and discharged within an organisation.

We need to see the purpose of safety as being to enable things to go right as often as possible. This is how excellence is built, on understanding and recreating the conditions for success under a variety of conditions. Some people call this resilience but I believe it is much more than that.

Our people complete difficult tasks every day. They have to navigate the competing and often contradictory values of the organisations on a daily basis and somehow in spite of the difficulties that are placed in front of them they create success at an exceptional rate.

Yet the only time we display any interest in the way that they work is when something unexpected happens. How fair is that? Should we constrain and control this innovative and adaptive capacity in our workforce or should we try and figure out a way of supporting and investing in the ability of people to achieve desired outcomes?

None of this requires that we abandon our traditional safety efforts but it does require that we look at what and how we create safety through a different lens.

It requires us to suspend the notion that our role is to have all of the answers but that the skill is in the ability to ask better questions. Questions like “tell about when work is difficult around here”? or “what changes in the last year have you found helpful?” or “If there was one thing you would like the person who wrote the method statement for this job what would it be?”. These questions and the resulting dialogue open up a world of possibilities.

Safety differently represents the opportunity to develop alternatives to the traditional paradigm of control and constraint and to see safety, once again, as a positive force in organisations. As an aspect of success.

This year many more organisations will be shifting their safety paradigms from seeing people as a problem to acknowledging that people are a  source of innovation and insight into how safety is created and will be examining the performance drag created by an over burgeoning bureaucracy in favour of an approach that appreciates and harnesses the possibilities and contributions that happen every day.


John Green is HSEQ director for Laing O’Rourke