“New View” of Safety Basics: Complexity, Variability, and Procedures

“New View” of Safety Basics: Complexity, Variability, and Procedures

We recently created a guide to some newer thoughts in safety—this includes things like HOP, Safety Differently, Safety-II, HPI, resilience engineering, and more. If you’re a safety professional, you’ll probably find this Guide to Practicing ‘New Safety’ interesting….go ahead and download it and we’ll wait right here until you’re back.

Back? Got the guide? Great!

In this article, we’re going to briefly introduce a few key themes from the new view of safety that are related to one another and influence how safety professionals should view, interact, and learn from employees at the “sharp end” who do the work and are closest to the risks and hazards. These themes are complexity, variability on the job, trade-offs, workers being the solution (not the problem), and learning from workers.

We hope you enjoy the rest of this article. Please share your own experiences and insights and don’t forget to download the guide.

Work and Complexity

A fundamental principle of these newer views of safety is that the context in which workers perform work and the job tasks themselves are complex. See our interview with safety professional Adam Johns for more about complexity, systems thinking, and safety management.

One of the great things about people in general and workers in particular is that they’re highly adept at working with complexity and creating successes under varying conditions. They know how to problem-solve, how to innovate, and how to get things done even when the path isn’t entirely clear.

Complexity and Written Procedures

Sometimes, the reality that work is complex gets forgotten, especially when safety professionals are in their office creating written job procedures for workers to follow. While this isn’t always true, it’s often true that safety professionals write procedures for job tasks even though they don’t know as much as the workers do; without input from the workers; in a way that ignores the complexity that workers will face while really performing the tasks; and with an assumption that workers will follow the procedure to the letter every time they perform the real task as part of their work lives. And it’s also sometimes true that if there is an incident at work, a safety professional might punish or blame the worker for not following the procedure letter-by-letter.

But this overly simplifies the normal work that gets done every day. It wrongly assumes conditions are always the same and implies workers can do the same thing every time they perform the job. It ignores real-life variation, the trade-offs workers are often forced to consider while getting the job done, and the contributions workers make to the company’s success through things like problem-solving and innovation.

How Workers Respond to Variation

But as we said, when workers are on the job, things aren’t as simple as they’re presented in written procedures. Complexities arise, unexpected things happen, workers need to make trade-offs, and they need to problem-solve to create successes.

This happens every day. The success that your business enjoys is often based on this creative problem-solving by workers.

And many new safety professionals believe this is the true “subject matter” of safety: studying how employees perform normal work to help create successes under varying conditions (in the words that I just wrote, I am paraphrasing definitions of safety by Erik Hollnagel, Todd Conklin, and Sidney Dekker--see our recorded Intro to New Safety webinar for more on this).

What Variation Means for Procedures

Not everyone agrees on what this means for procedures and safety professionals, however. It’s a big world and there’s a diversity of opinion, obviously.

From my perspective, I think it’s fine to write procedures. But those procedures should be written by safety professionals working together with the workers who perform the real jobs, and they should reflect work as its really performed, not work as the safety manager imagines it. These procedures can be useful tools for workers but it should also be important to know that workers don’t have to follow them letter-by-letter. Over time, the safety manager should talk with workers to learn more about the jobs and discover when workers needed to depart from a procedure and why. When appropriate, the procedure can be changed. In other cases, these departures may signal the safety professional that there’s a latent weakness in the workplace safety system that could at some point lead to an incident—and the safety professional should work to put in place additional protections to fix that weakness or vulnerability in the system (instead of punish or retrain the worker).

You see—the worker is the solution, not the problem.

You’ll never “stamp out” human error, but you can create a stronger, more resilient, more adaptive system that allows workers to problem-solve, create solutions, and (yes) even make errors without triggering an incident.

And isn’t that what a safer workplace is really all about?

Want to Know More?

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