More on ‘Safety I vs. Safety II’

On the Safe Side podcast

In May, well-known safety experts Tim Page-Bottorff and Corrie Pitzer met on stage for The Battle Between Safety I and Safety II: Who is Right and Who is Wrong? at the 2024 NSC Spring Safety Conference and Expo.

Sound alarming? Don’t worry. “We’re actually not trying to battle,” said Page-Bottorff, senior safety consultant for SafeStart said during the April episode of Safety+Health’s On the Safe Side podcast

“There are tools in both camps that are going to be helpful.”

He borrowed a phrase from a popular set of movies and books: There’s not “one ring to rule them all” in safety.

The terms Safety I and Safety II are credited, at least in part, to Erik Hollnagel, author and former professor at universities in Denmark, Sweden and Australia.

Safety I typically focuses on when and how things go wrong – or “the absence of safety.” It includes goals such as zero incidents or zero unsafe acts, and uses compliance as one key method to achieve those goals.

Safety II has a more proactive approach, such as building defenses against inevitable human error or unsafe actions. The philosophy of Human and Organizational Performance is a prime example. 

Highlights from Page-Bottorff’s “On the Safe Side” interview:

  • Employers should use assessments to find out where they are in the Safety I or Safety II spectrum – and where they want to go.
  • Safety pros who feel “stuck in the middle” between Safety I and Safety II might find themselves gravitating toward what’s popular – and that’s typically Safety II concepts.
  • Even safety pros who have fully embraced Safety II still need to maintain worker compliance, a concept from the Safety I camp.
  • While seeking that compliance, “you can’t forget that some people make mistakes. And, of course, if you’re building resilience (a Safety II term), you’ll actually allow them to fail safely.”

No matter what approach is used or where employers are on the Safety I and Safety II spectrum, Page-Bottorff said, communication, trust and the desire to improve are still key and desirable traits.

“If you’re willing to improve, that’s the best place to start,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what silo you attract from or pull from. Take the next step. Find out where you are and where you want to be.”

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