Speaker Spotlight

Speaker Spotlight: A new definition of safety

Speaker Spotlight

EDITOR’S NOTE: Every year, the National Safety Council Congress & Expo features some of the top thought-leaders and motivators in the occupational safety and health community. Safety+Health has invited the most highly rated presenters to contribute to this monthly column. For more on this year’s event, visit congress.nsc.org.

What is “safe”? The answer may not be as simple as you think.

One popular response is, “When no one gets hurt.” However, is this really true? You could have an incident in which nobody got hurt, so this clearly isn’t the right definition.

Is “When no incident happened” a better answer? No, because something can “nearly” go wrong. No event occurred, but by sheer coincidence, nothing happened. The threat is still there – even imminent – and it’s not “safe.”

The safety system is unlike any other system in an organization. Factors are numerous and complex in modern organizations, and downstream performance indicators simply don’t measure the state of safety.

In any sizable company, many millions of actions and processes are performed during any given day, and the occurrence of a minuscule number of incidents is statistically insignificant and therefore invalid as a measure.

The difficulty starts at the most fundamental level of the safety paradigm: how “safety” is defined. In most, if not all, organizations, safety is defined simply as the absence of incidents – the notion of zero. Unfortunately, this leads to significant complications, because it logically demands that zero near misses, then zero mistakes and then eventually zero risk must be achieved – an obvious impossibility. A more workable definition for safety is the “presence of capabilities.” But this too is difficult, even impossible, to measure.

I want to offer a new definition: Safety is the readiness to respond to risks, toward resilience. Let’s put this into a new “formula” – “Safety = R4.”

It must go beyond “zero” and performance numbers. It must set a safety vision that inspires, focuses on the analysis of the upstream capabilities and vulnerabilities, anticipates risk exposures, and measures and optimizes the integrity of midstream processes. It must create dynamic, flexible systems at the “sharp” end of the business.

To increase the likelihood of safer outcomes, we need to become “risk competent.” This means having the ability to competently engage with risk by understanding a few key characteristics of risk:

It’s random. Operational processes may appear fixed, designed and planned, but changes – unpredictable breakdowns or constraints in the process – often occur randomly.
It’s dynamic and variable. Risk in the workplace ebbs and flows, appears and disappears, becomes less or more likely, or you’re less or more exposed to it.
It’s positive and negative. Risk poses a threat or can offer an opportunity – often at the same time.
It’s ambiguous. Risk can’t be measured with a matrix. It migrates once you see or treat it.

Understanding these characteristics is defining our readiness for risk by not expecting the process to be the same all the time and looking for situations that can change or deviate, by searching for exposures that aren’t imminent or obvious, and anticipating not the “near” miss but the “far” miss.

Responding to risk is the other component of competence. It’s not the traditional response of wanting to immediately shut down the risk, eliminate it, substitute it, contain it or protect us from it (the Hierarchy of Controls). We can respond by being aware of it and continue on with our actions, or by reducing our exposure to the risk. We can work closer to the edge of risk by being competent, smart and flexible. We can harness its potential, too.

Can we can measure R4? Yes, we can. Here are some examples:

Readiness, by analyzing the perceptions of people: how trusting, informed, reporting, flexible, just and learning the culture is.
Response, by the number of risk-reduction projects in action over time.
Risk, by the rate of serious risk exposures identified and controlled.
Resilience, by improvements in the percent of unplanned vs. planned work.

What is “safe”? It’s a complex question, and it deserves a complex answer.

This article represents the views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

Corrie Pitzer is the CEO and founder of SAFEmap International (safemap.com), a company that specializes in the psychology of risk. He consults internationally for many large organizations in mining, utilities, military defense and construction.


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