Is Safety Differently Really Any Different than Safety? An Interview with Ron Gantt


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In a purely non-scientific, sticking-my-finger-into-the-wind kind of way, it seems to me there's been more discussion of Safety 2, Human and Organizational Performance (HOP), and Safety Differently lately.

Note: I tend to lump these all together because they have a lot in common and I'll be using the term Safety Differently for the rest of this article.

Maybe you've noticed that same increase in chatter about and interest in Safety Differently yourself lately.

Not so long ago, I "listened in" on a thoughtful and interesting discussion on LinkedIn in which people were discussing Safety Differently. One of the primary issues in the discussion was whether or not Safety Differently was really any different that "traditional" safety.

Ron Gantt, as he often does, entered the fray and presented a comprehensive, eloquent answer in which he suggested that Safety Differently really is different than traditional safety. (I should also note that many people who contributed to this discussion were very thoughtful--it was one of those times when you realized that a social media network like LinkedIn really can be a great community where passionate, informed professionals exchange views and opinions in a productive, civil, respectful manner.)

I was pretty impressed, and I asked Ron if we could do an interview in which he presents his views on Safety Differently. Ron was kind enough to agree, as he has in the past as well, and we're very grateful to him for his contributions below. For those of you not familiar with Ron, check out the website that he edits and keep an eye out for him at safety and similar conferences--he's an engaging and persuasive speaker. You can also find additional information about Ron at the bottom of this article.

And now, let's get to talking to Ron about Safety Differently.

Before you begin, if you're interested in Ron Gantt and Safety Differently, you'll no-doubt enjoy the guide to "new views" of safety we've got for you below--including many global safety experts discussing HOP, HPI, Safety Differently, Safety-II, Resilience Engineering, and more.

Defining Safety Differently

Let's start by learning a few general things about safety differently and then move on to some tougher questions as we go.

Is Safety Different Really Different? Does It Have any Unique Benefits?

Convergence Training: You’re probably aware that while a lot of people think Safety Differently is revolutionary, important, and in general the cat's pajamas, a lot of others think it’s traditional safety by a new name and with a lot of hype. Do you understand the perspective of those who think there’s nothing different about Safety Differently and what would you say to them in general terms?

Ron Gantt: Being involved in the safety differently movement for some time now, I have interacted with a lot of people who are skeptical about its benefits. One of the more common complaints I hear is something along the lines of “this isn’t new, we have been doing safety differently for decades” or “safety differently isn’t different from what we’re already doing.” These are actually understandable responses, and, in some sense, these critics are correct. From some perspectives safety differently is neither new, nor different. Let me explain.

First, regarding the newness of safety differently, it is worth pointing out that it is called “safety differently,” not “safety new.” This is because aspects of the ideas that provide the foundation of safety differently have deep roots in different disciplines and professions. One could argue that some researchers have been advocating for aspects of safety differently for over a century. In some respects, I feel like this is actually evidence that safety differently is indeed valid. Given the claims that safety differently makes about people and how they interact in organizations, it would be odd if people haven’t thought of some of these ideas already. So I feel very comfortable with the idea that safety differently has deep roots in social and safety sciences that we can point to.

Of course, this begs the next point – what’s so different about safety differently? After all, if it’s not new, then that must mean people have been doing it already. And I do believe that this is the case. You can find organizations that have been practicing some or perhaps even all of what safety differently recommends for decades. The point of the differently in safety differently is not to say that no organization in history has ever adopted these ideas. Rather, it is a statement that what safety differently recommends is different than what people traditionally see as normal safety practices.

3 Specific Ways That Safety Differently Really Is Different

Convergence Training: What are a few key ways that you believe Safety Differently really is different than traditional safety?

Ron Gantt: To understand this, let’s look at the key principles of Safety Differently:

  1. Safety is defined as the presence of positives, such as the capacity to be successful in varying conditions (as opposed to the absence of negatives)
  2. People are the solution (as opposed to the problem to control)
  3. Safety is an ethical responsibility to those who do the organization's risky work (as opposed to safety being a bureaucratic accountability to those up the hierarchy)

Safety Differently Principle One: Safety Is Defined as a Positive

Convergence Training: Can you tell us more about the way Safety Differently defines safety?

Ron Gantt: To the first principle, there is no definition of safety that I'm aware of that is not inherently tied to the absence of negatives (e.g., accidents, incidents, unacceptable risk, or unsafe acts/human error). This isn't to say that there are none, but all organizations operate with the idea that safety is about preventing accidents.

That's a laudable goal, but, practitioners of Safety Differently argue that in making this the sole goal we misunderstand the causes of failure and success because we assume that if we eliminate all negatives then we will only be left with what we want (i.e., success). This is not necessarily true because of how people adapt to deal with complexity, which leads to both success and failure.

Eliminating the causes of failure will also eliminate the causes of success. Further, this definition of safety also creates conflict in the organization that didn't previously exist in the form of safety and production trade-offs. Rather than seeing safety as a pull on the organization, Safety Differently practitioners see safety as an enabler.

I have yet to see an organization that actively defines safety in this way and uses this definition in practice in a consistent way.

Safety Differently Principle Two: People Are the Solution for Safety

Convergence Training: What about how Safety Differently thinks of people, and more specifically, workers?

Ron Gantt: To the second principle, seeing people as the solution, this one is the most susceptible to the “not different” criticism in my opinion.

There are organizations that have been utilizing people-oriented, collaborative approaches for decades. There is also a movement in some organizations toward creating boss-less work environments, teams of teams, etc., which have a lot of overlap with the idea that people are the solution.

However, I have yet to see any organization take these ideas and apply them to safety in a systematic way. When it comes to safety, often organizations get the idea that asking workers about procedures is all it takes to make people the solution. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a good thing. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what’s possible when organizations move away from top-down, Tayloristic approaches to safety management. In my experience though, organizations are just beginning to test the waters on this principle, although some of the early stories we are seeing on this are quite exciting.

Safety Differently Principle Three: Safety Is an Ethical Responsibility

Convergence Training: What can you tell us about that third principle, the notion that safety is an ethical responsibility to the worker doing risky work for the organization?

Ron Gantt: To the third principle, this is the one I find people have the hardest time understanding. People think that we’re saying that safety professionals should be more ethical. That’s not what this principle is about.

It is true that most safety professionals want safety to be an ethical responsibility, but their focus is on those above them (e.g., corporate, regulators) rather than those below them (e.g., workers). As an example, safety professionals are far more interested in what the regulator believes is 'safe' than what workers believe is 'safe.'

There are reasons for this to be sure, but the point is that this is wrong and needs to change. Safety should be oriented toward supporting workers, not toward meeting bureaucratic and regulatory requirements. We should be asking workers what they need instead of asking them why they aren’t following our rules. To me, this is very different than how safety is commonly practiced. Go to a safety conference and you see tools and consultants all designed to help you get workers to follow your rules and procedures, to enforce constraints on how they do work. You really don’t see much about enabling workers to get work done.

Final Words on the Difference of Safety Differently

Convergence Training: Any final thoughts to share for us?

Ron Gantt: To me, in sum, all of this is quite different than how safety is commonly practiced across industries. Again, there will be exceptions with organizations doing aspects of these things well. I wouldn’t even be surprised if there are some organizations doing all of the above. But if there are such organizations they are out of line with the dominant practices and assumptions of safety today. I think this needs to change and this is why I feel comfortable making the blanket statement that organizations need to start doing safety differently.

Conclusion: Safety Differently--What Do You Think?

Once again, we'd like to thank Ron Gantt for sharing his time, knowledge, and expertise, and we'd like to remind you to try to catch Ron if he's speaking at any conferences near you.

If you'd like additional information on Safety Differently and/or Human and Organizational Performance (HOP), please check the following articles:

Please leave your comments, thoughts, and questions about Safety Differently below. And since you made it way down here to the bottom, feel free to download our free Online Safety Training Buyer's Guide Checklist, too.

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