Safety Differently and What It All Boils Down To

Neil HartleyHealth & Safety Issues/TrendsLeave a Comment

Safety Differently and What It All Boils Down To

Safety Differently is an increasingly used buzzword in the world of health and safety. The concepts it presents are eye-catching but there is a significant issue which even its most ardent proponents accept – there is little definitive and citable research to support claims of its potential.

This doesn’t mean we only have theory to go on, however. There are several interesting examples of companies who have adopted Safety Differently principles. Most of them benefit from having passionate, innovative, and forward-thinking health and safety leaders on their team as well as C-Suite executives and/or directors willing to buy-in to the new approach.

By looking at these companies, we can get an idea of what a real-world implementation of Safety Differently looks like.

What is Safety Differently?

Before going further, however, let’s first quickly recap the Safety Differently approach to health and safety.

Safety differently is different from a traditional top-down health and safety strategy that focuses on eliminating all accidents, including minor accidents and near misses.

Instead, Safety Differently focuses on preventing major accidents, i.e. those that cause death or serious industry. Part of this involves accepting that minor accidents are a normal and ultimately unpreventable part of doing business.

Advocates of Safety Differently say elements of its implementation are also different from a traditional health and safety approach. This includes the top-down nature of traditional health and safety management where workers on the ground are told what they should do to be safe.

Safety Differently differs in that it empowers workers and gives them autonomy to make safety-related decisions.

The Luton Airport Example

Luton Airport was an early adopter of Safety Differently. It directly employs 750 people although there are 9,400 people in total who work at the airport. The airport itself caters for 16 million travellers a year.

Part of Luton Airport’s implementation of Safety Differently included the introduction of a new, condensed safety policy designed around the principle that safety is not about the absence of accidents, it’s about the presence of trust, ownership, engagement, and positives.

In other words, the focus is on building a culture where people make decisions within the right safety context in all aspects of the business.

Part of the adoption of Safety Differently involves a reduced focus on KPIs such as targets for accident-free days. Instead, Luton Airport measures things like whether employees feel empowered to manage risks or whether they would recommend Luton Airport from a safety perspective to a friend looking for a new job.

The Laing O’Rourke Example

The large construction company Laing O’Rourke has a turnover of over £3 billion and employs more than 15,000 people. In its adoption of Safety Differently principles, it has moved away from three views of health and safety it describes as “old world”:

  • People are the problem
  • Safety is the absence of negatives (i.e. the absence of accidents)
  • Safety is largely a bureaucratic activity

The company replaced the above with three new viewpoints:

  • People are the solution
  • Safety is the presence of positives such as employees feeling empowered and trusted to manage safety risks
  • Safety is an ethical responsibility

The UCB Example

UCB is a biopharmaceutical company involved in research and development that employs 7,500 people.

The company previously identified risks and then used traditional measurements to assess the likelihood of those risks materialising. It then took steps to mitigate the most likely risks with rules and controls.

UCB now takes a hybrid approach to health and safety that includes the continued use of the previous method for the 20 most serious risks. For all other risks, however, it has applied Safety Differently principles. This involves moving away from focusing on the problem that causes the risk to instead focus on the purpose of the actions that create the problem.

This creates more understanding and engagement by workers and establishes a genuine and successful learning culture.

What About Industry Standards and Safety Differently?

All companies, including those above who have implemented all or some of the principles of Safety Differently, continue to operate in an environment that is regulated and where industry standards exist. This includes ISO 45001, the new standard for health and safety management systems. How does Safety Differently fit with this?

When you cut through the unavoidable bureaucracy of ISO 45001, at its heart it is essentially about establishing a health and safety culture in an organisation.

It replaces the old OHSAS 18001 standard which was fixed, procedure based, focused on risk, and instructional (i.e. employees on the ground must implement health and safety procedures they had no part in creating regardless of how well those procedures fit in with what they actually do).

ISO 45001 is different in that it focuses on constantly evolving and changing processes making it dynamic and adaptable. This flexibility better reflects the real nature of business and workplace environments.

In addition, and notwithstanding its more thorough overall approach to risk management, ISO 45001 focuses more on positives (opportunities) rather than being exclusively about risks. Crucially, it also requires participation and consultation with everyone involved, including workers who are most at risk.

So, while the objectives and requirements of ISO 45001 are not directly in-line with Safety Differently, many of the principles correlate.

In fact, whether it is Safety Differently or wrapped up in something else, the important underlying principle is that organisations should not treat health and safety as a standalone task, standalone business unit, or standalone responsibility.

Instead, health and safety should be an integral and crucial part of running a successful company where the focus is on continuous business and process improvement.

What It All Boils Down To

There are several headline differences that make Safety Differently stand out from a “traditional” approach to health and safety. This includes giving decision-making autonomy to workers at the greatest risk rather than people sitting in comfortable offices or boardrooms making the decisions for them.

Another attention-grabbing headline of Safety Differently is that it involves accepting that minor accidents will happen rather than almost exclusively focusing on achieving as many accident-free days as possible.

However, all these headlines are simply an outworking of the central philosophy of Safety Differently and, the truth is, the philosophy is not that radical. It is the philosophy that health and safety should not exist within a silo in an organisation. In other words, it should not be the sole responsibility of the health and safety team to “do” health and safety in the business.

Instead, health and safety should be a core and central part of everything the business does. It should also be everyone’s responsibility and it should be part of the organisation’s DNA.

That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Yes, the Safety Differently approach to health and safety simply describes a roadmap to establishing a positive and ingrained health and safety culture.

Therefore, that is where the focus should be – establishing the right health and safety culture. After all, if your culture is not right, it doesn’t matter what practical steps you take in relation to health and safety. Only be establishing, nurturing, and continuously improving the health and safety culture in an organisation can you make workers and others truly safe.

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