Inspired by the same philosophy that has driven improvements in everything from Olympic cycling and education to aviation and car making, One Percent Safer is the application of marginal gains theory to health and safety at work.

Popularised by writers such as Black Box Thinking author Matthew Syed, marginal gains is about focusing on small, one percent improvements, the compound effect of which is huge. The Mercedes Formula One team, inventor James Dyson, and footballer David Beckham are among examples of Black Box Thinkers, says Syed. Individuals or organisations who stuck at it, refining their approaches bit by bit.

Transformational step changes are what we know in health and safety. Often inspired by disasters that shock society and lead to a complete overhaul in the way things are done, these can be difficult, expensive and risky.

One Percent Safer, which began as a book published in 2020, argues that if we can continue to make small improvements regularly, we will see positive results every bit as significant as the step change. For Dyson, marginal gains means better household devices. For Beckham, more top corners found with those memorable free kicks. In health and safety, of course, incremental improvements over time means more lives saved.

Today, driven by this simple idea, One Percent Safer has become a movement that is generating a groundswell of ideas from every corner of the health and safety sector and beyond. What has become an influx of suggestions into its website began with contributions to the book from 142 leading thinkers, practitioners and writers in health and safety.

Later in this article, we will take a look at some of these contributions, each one offering a different perspective and all achievable and within our reach today, you may conclude. But first, we will consider this example from the chapter (Don’t) Be Like Me, by inspirational speaker Jason Anker MBE.

“One Percent Safer’s aim is to cut the number of people killed each year by work-related accidents or illnesses by 28,000”

Lessons from a fall

Anker was left paralysed when he fell from an unsecured ladder at a construction site in 1993. It was an accident that left the then 24-year-old with a life-changing injury and a broken marriage. Looking back, knowing what he now knows, what small change could have been made to prevent his near fatal accident?

Could he have avoided working at height? Was there a safer place to carry out the work? Was he using fall arrest or fall restraint systems? One or all of these would no doubt have prevented the accident. For Anker, however, it was also something more than the usual suspects in the control hierarchy.

“It also went deeper into the culture of the organisation and also my mindset at the time,” he said.

“I now talk about my life a year prior to my accident, how my life had started to fall apart, the recession of the early ‘90s, being made redundant and then working in jobs I didn’t want to do just to earn money. This had, not knowing at the time, a huge impact on my wellbeing, and I can now see the spiral of events that led up to my accident had started way before January 3, 1993.”

And with this reflection from a fall from height survivor, came the marginal gain that could have been made.

“Whatever your position in the organisation, you’re never too important to be nice to people,” he said. “Ask workers how they’re doing, sincerely, and take an interest in their reply.”

For Anker, better communication and active listening would enhance risk management and the safety of our work environments. No monumental step change needed here; just a more empathetic approach to leadership and management. A small but significant improvement within everyone’s reach.

2.78 million people killed

One Percent Safer is today a charitable foundation run by a Board of volunteer trustees, chaired by founder Prof Dr Andrew Sharman. Its chief aim is to cut the number of people killed each year by work-related accidents or illnesses by 28,000. The figure is approximately 1% of the annual estimated number of work-related fatalities worldwide: 2.78 million.

To break that down, work diseases account for 2.4 million (86.3%) of the total estimated deaths. Fatal occupational accidents account for the remaining 13.7%.

“At this point you have a couple of options,” said Sharman. “You can accept this, as unfortunate as it is, that this is just what happens in the world of work and carry on doing things the way you always have. Or you can join us and imagine a world where all organisations commit to being one percent safer every day.”

On April 28, the Foundation will host its first conference, One Percent Safer: Live & Direct, in partnership with Canada-based Safeopedia. Held on World Day for Safety and Health at Work, this interactive virtual conference will gather leaders and thinkers from the worlds of health and safety, academia and commerce to debate how we can prevent more deaths at work with marginal gains.

“You can be a change-maker and a game-changer in your organisation and be part of the One Percent Safer Movement. It’s that simple,”4
said Sharman. “If we do just one thing, just improve things by one percent, then that’s 28,000 people every year that get to home at the end of the working day without harm, instead of ending up dead.

“Wouldn’t that be incredible, to be part of a movement that helps to save 28,000 lives.”

We can all be proponents of marginal gains in health and safety, is the message.

In Black Box Thinking, Syed talks about safety in aviation and construction projects but not workplace health and safety per se.
If he had, he would surely have seen eye to eye with a profession or discipline that understands the key to unlocking marginal gains: redefining failure.

“At the level of the brain, the individual, the organisation and the system, failure is a means – sometimes the only means – of learning, progressing and becoming more creative,” says Syed. “Errors have different meanings, and call for different types of response depending on context, but in all of their guises they represent invaluable aids with the potential to help us learn.”

Anker personifies Black Box Thinking and perhaps health and safety too. He has taken the mistakes he made that nearly claimed his life, and that caused him so much pain over so many years, and shared them so others could learn.

Syed talks in his book about cognitive dissonance, which refers to the situation where someone alters their beliefs or attitudes because they’re unwilling to face an uncomfortable truth. Anker is the antithesis of this. He has chosen to face the facts of his accident and share them, and the world of health and safety is all the better for it.

One Percent Safer, the book, is packed with similarly short, succinctly written ideas for making marginal gains. For Anker, it was about communication and active listening. Here are some snippets from contributions that touch on other marginal gains ideas, involving behaviour, checklists, processes and human factors.

“when its forest becomes engulfed by fire, this little bird flies between a stream and the flames, collecting drops of water to extinguish the blaze”

Be the hummingbird

One Percent Safer Board member Malcolm Staves, Group Health and Safety Director for L’Oréal, refers to the fable of the hummingbird. When its forest becomes engulfed by fire, this little bird flies between a stream and the flames, collecting drops of water to extinguish the blaze.

As the other animals stand by, one asks, ‘What do you think you can do? You are too little. This fire is too big.’

The hummingbird replies, ‘I am doing the best I can.’ It may feel insignificant, and the challenge may seem insurmountable, but the little bird will not stand by and watch as we fail. It will play its part, however small a part that can be.

It’s a philosophy that Staves lives and works by, and it fits with the ethos of One Percent Safer. The idea that each of us can do something to make the world of work a safer place. And with this fable, Staves offers several points that have guided him in his life and work, including ‘Put people in the centre of what you do, be passionate and lead with the heart.’

“When it comes to developing health and safety culture within an organisation, it is important to have people you can count on and have a passion for health and safety at all levels,” he said.

Seven golden rules

One Percent Safer at first glance appears at odds with another global, high-profile drive to cut workplace fatalities, the International Social Security Association (ISSA) led Vision Zero. Not so, says Sven Timm, a vice-president of ISSA’s section on information and prevention culture. Timm argues that Vision Zero’s 7 Golden Rules offer a simple framework, and a company will be taking a small but significant step in adopting them.

So consider the small or medium-sized enterprise. A construction firm, say, with employees who work at height. And then apply these rules

  • Take leadership – demonstrate commitment
  • Identify hazards – control risks
  • Define targets – develop programs
  • Ensure a safe and healthy system –be well organised
  • Ensure safety and health in machines, equipment and workplaces
  • Improve qualifications –develop competence
  • Invest in people – motivate by participation

“I am sure that the growing application of even these basics will lead to a remarkable decrease of work accidents and work-related diseases in small businesses,” said Timm. “If we can convince at least one per cent of the small businesses owners not yet involved to organise prevention and apply at least basic measures, we will make the world of work a better one on a global scale.”

Comfortably numb

For Dr Philippe Delquié, professor of Decision Sciences at the George Washington University, we could make the world of work just
that little bit safer if we guarded against complacency.

“It is well-established in psychometrics that we tend to get habituated to the current level of a stimulus (ambient sound level, temperature, your pace on the highway, etc.). The same goes for risk level: we can become comfortably numb to it. If you have slightly escalated the risk in your position and everything continues to be good, then there will no incentive to roll it back.

“What-if thought experiments can be a powerful, inexpensive strategy to break out of mental numbness, and regain situational awareness that may have slipped away.”

Press pause

Dr Rhona Flin, Professor of Industrial Psychology at Aberdeen Business School, Robert Gordon University and Emeritus Professor of Applied Psychology at University of Aberdeen, looks at the importance of pausing. Can you stop a job when the nature of the task changes to assess the risk, asks Flin, who finds this very behaviour in medicine.

“The idea of slowing down is gaining ground in other high-risk occupations,” she said. “A Canadian surgeon, Carol-Ann Moulton, has studied ‘slowing down when you should’ during operations. She found that more experienced surgeons were more likely to recognise the warning signs that the task needed to be slowed down to let them re-assess what they were doing.”

Is the risk worth It?

Ruth Denyer, Director of Production Safety at Netflix, asks the simple question that ‘speaks to the essence of what we do’. ‘Is the risk worth it?’ hides a nuanced and complex decision-making challenge, says Denyer.

It’s not a question for her to answer, she says. Instead, she will provide a reasoned framework to support the decision making. She will build the fuller picture, upon which the person who owns the activity can also take ownership of the risks.

For Denyer, more fatalities will be prevented if we and our risk assessments are better informed.

“We have often framed the downside of health and safety risks too strongly in terms of legal compliance,” she said. “In my experience, people don’t want to harm or hurt others emotionally or physically, and perhaps a focus on legal requirements and compliance removes the human compassion from the evaluation and real consideration of the risk level. The human story is so strong, and it should lead any consideration of the impact of a risk.

“Risk in its entirety can never be eliminated. Our role as leaders is to effectively support those making these hard calls, providing them the fullest possible picture to base these decisions on.”

One Percent Safer

From the hummingbird, to what-if experiments, to taking a pause, to a checklist of fundamentals. One Percent Safer, the book, has highlighted and shared what still only scrapes the surface of our collective knowledge of how to prevent death, injury and illness at work.

Since its inception in the summer of 2020, One Percent Safer has attracted an ever-growing bank of ideas on how to channel marginal gains into our approaches to health and safety at work.

On the One Percent Safer website, the Foundation asked visitors to join the movement to make that 1% difference by submitting their ideas for, and commitments to, safety and health gains they can achieve. They came thick and fast and are still coming.

Safety and health practitioners’ pledges are being submitted from round the globe and range from targeted suggestions to improve controls to more general commitments to change their management styles.

Some seem modest at first glance. “I will continue to try and have authentic conversations, particularly focusing on mental health and wellbeing,” wrote Delwynne Cuttilan, Head of Compliance at UK-based transport research body TRL. “I have challenged myself to ask three people “How are you today?” every day and to listen to the answer.”

“By influencing one person every day to think about safety starting with [asking] RUOK?” wrote Heinrich Havemann, HSEQ Manager at Horizon Energy Group in New Zealand. These personal commitments translate into around 1,400 personal conversations with colleagues over 12 months; not so modest after all.

Michael Aune, Special Projects Manager at HTS Ameritek in the US submitted a short and simple roadmap: “Seek. Connect. Involve. Explore. Notice. Consider. Evolve.”

Claire Selby, Health and Safety Manager at SV Cuisine: “I am going to make the world 1% safer by helping those around me to see hazards, and by giving them the
skills to find the workable solutions for themselves.”

Marginal gains in occupational safety and health is now very much a thing, thanks to a One Percent Safer movement that is demonstrating a simple truth: that each one of us has it within our gift, to do something today to make the world of work a safer place. Together, we can ensure more people return home at the end of the working day.

Visit the One Percent Safer website, join the movement and submit your idea or pledge at www.onepercentsafer.com

* Registrations are open for One Percent Safer: Live & Direct, which is attracting the leading thinkers in health and safety to share and debate new and different ways to protect life in the workplace. To register, visit https://register.safeopedia.com/one-percent-safer-live-and-direct-virtual-conference. If you’re one of the first, you’ll get a free copy of the One Percent Safer book, worth £40.