Major issues in health and safety should still be given the priority they deserve. Occupational safety and health took a back seat in 2020, with budgets stripped, initiatives put on hold and massive layoffs seen to avoid bankruptcy in many organisations.
Yet 2.78 million still die each year of workplace accidents or ill-health. That’s 317 people every hour – husbands, wives, fathers and mothers.
The human cost of this daily adversity is vast, and the economic burden would more than warrant necessary safety measures. Every €1 invested in occupational safety sees €2.20 return, whilst every €1 invested in mental health sees an incredible €4.20 return for organisations!
So, the numbers are increasingly providing a rock-solid foundation for organisations to put in place new, better safety management systems.
Unfortunately – and quite on the contrary – we’re seeing an increase in the penalisation of human error with even large organisations claiming it is inevitable, just because the ‘brain is wired that way’. This is a clear continuation of the ‘old way’ of doing safety, where 10-15 months ago the signs were already present, but EHS staff failed to look deeper into organisational factors.
This makes the creation of a safety culture with emphasis on speak-up values very difficult for workers, as they perceive management telling them people are the problem after all.
The obvious answer from a new wave of thinkers is Safety Differently or Safety II. The theory suggests a heavier reliance on people’s expertise and insights, and focuses on how work is actually done. But not everyone is on board, viewing this latest fad as just the next magic bullet.
According to Carsten Busch, safety culture mastermind, the underlying question is whether safety is ‘the absence of incidents?’ We must ask ourselves
“if we don’t have an accident, are we safe?”
All the early thinkers like Heinrich wrote about accident prevention – the old way of doing safety. We were taught our job is to find causes. An accident happened; we must find the cause.
But if you stick with the first cause, you may only find your (convenient) version of the truth. Hence, many EHS directors will tell you that people are the problem after all. Human error ends up often being identified as the root cause of many incidents.
In many big organisations today, the solution is to just throw someone under the bus and then move on (echoing what James Reason said, on people at the sharp end just inheriting the problems from higher up in the system).
“Why did he do something stupid like that?” is asked a lot more often than “why did it make sense to him or her in that situation?” With the latter you make people the starting point and not the answer.
Which brings us back to what Safety Differently embodies: people-based thinking where frontline workers are the solutions to – not the cause of – many of the problems we face.
On the other hand, opponents like Dominic Cooper, behavioural safety expert, says the stats don’t match up at companies already using Safety Differently or Safety II. They appeared to show plateaued accident frequency rates or questionable effects in fatalities and lost-time incidents.
He says other companies adopting traditional safety philosophies like behavioural safety have reduced fatalities by 80% within three years, making it a much more effective safety management tool.
Hear more from Carsten and Dom along with safety differently European ambassador, John Green, at the 2021 EHS Congress this November 9-10 in Berlin, all joining the first 60-minute provocative panel debate of Day 1, on this subject.