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To Be Safer – More of the Same or Something Different?

To Be Safer – More of the Same or Something Different?

The way we think about safety has evolved over the last 40 years. How have we thought about safety up until now?

First Generation Safety: Focus on hazards and people's knowledge.

We keep people safe by either, eliminating hazards or controlling the remaining ones by providing processes, rules and procedures. It is difficult to hurt someone without a hazard.

But the problem is that we can’t eliminate all hazards. So, we make people aware of what is in our workplaces via inductions and training. The premise here is that if people know what will hurt them they will do the "safe" thing. This works most of the time, but not always.

It is easy to see how this approach drove us towards engineering solutions. The aim of this way of thinking about safety is to control the physical environment. It resulted in effective Safety Management Systems and a focus on compliance.

But what happens if we comply with the Safety Management System and someone still gets hurt, what then?

Enter Second Generation safety.

Second Generation Safety: Focus on making safe conscious decisions by keeping safety “front of mind”.

How do you get people to keep safety “front of mind”?

A common way is to personally demonstrate the importance of safety to people. The two most used approaches are safety leadership programs and safety observation processes. The techniques used come from social science and are typically “framed” in terms of:

  • safety as a value.

  • commitment to safety.

  • how much we care (about ourselves and others).

  • the strength of our relationships.

  • our sense of belonging.

  • other social science concepts.

The “safety is important” message helps people to think more consciously about what they are doing. That is a good thing. It creates a workplace that places safety high on everyone’s agenda.

It is easy to see how this social science approach drove management practices. The aim of this way of thinking about safety is to get people to make the “safe” conscious decision every time. It is about a manager, supervisor or co-worker enabling the worker to choose the “safe way” of doing things. That’s why we refer to it as “top down” safety. Someone else, an external stimulus, influences the individual’s behaviour. This social science approach became the beginnings of an organisation’s safety culture journey.

The problem is that neuroscience tells us that 95% of what we do is not “front of mind” but rather “back of mind”. We are certainly able to think through everything consciously, but we just tend not to because we are not wired to do so.

First and Second Generation Safety approaches improved safety performance considerably. Unfortunately, these gains levelled out. More importantly, incidents are still happening, even serious ones.

So, what’s next? More of the same type of safety thinking or something different?

Next Time: Third Generation Safety – What Safety Can Learn From Neuroscience.


This blog is an excerpt from Third Generation Safety: The Missing Piece by Cristian Sylvestre.

Cristian takes what neuroscience is revealing about how the brain functions, explaining how human performance could impact personal safety and what individuals and organisations can do about it. TO BE RELEASED SOON

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