On the fiftieth episode of the Safety of Work podcast, we discuss the relationship between safety work and the safety of work. In honor of this landmark number of episodes, we are going to use a paper we published together regarding this topic called, Safety Work Versus the Safety of Work. It seems fitting that the topic gets to the heart of what our show is all about.
A huge thank you to our listeners who have made this podcast such a success. We started this show with the hope that we could impact the safety of work in our community and beyond. To all who have shared this podcast, you are helping us reach people and potentially improve safety culture.
“...I could see that people put far more attention in real life on doing assessment and assurance activities, than they spend on insurance activities.”
“Social safety is very much conceptual work. It’s aimed at making safety be a value in the organization and letting the organization believe that it is a champion of safety.”
“We’re fairly sure that lots of the stuff we do in the name of safety...has some impact on the safety of work, but we don’t know which bits…”
Safety Work Versus the Safety of Work
David: You're listening to The Safety of Work Podcast episode number 50. Today we're asking the question, what is the relationship between safety work and the safety of work? Let's get started.
Hey, everybody. My name is David Provan and I'm here with Drew Rae, and we're from the Safety Science Innovation Lab at Griffith University. Well, Drew, there you go, 50 episodes. We mentioned at the end of last week, whether we thought we'd get here, but how are you feeling about number 50?
Drew: Yeah, when I started doing my very first podcast, I googled for how many episodes does a podcast need to have before it counts as successful? I think I found that most podcasts see this drop out before 20 episodes, or they produce somewhere between 20 and 50. It's like you're batting in cricket. If you make it to 50, there's a decent chance of going on to 100.
David: Very good. Okay. Just for listeners, we’re safety people and safety people love stats. I mean, we have more than 50,000 downloads of episodes of the podcast. We've got about 1500 people who follow us along on LinkedIn, so just a really big thank you from us to everyone who's listened, everyone who shared this podcast with a colleague or a friend. We get lots of really great feedback.
We also know that there are listeners out there who are sharing our episodes with their management teams to try to help them think critically and create change within their organization. That's really nice to hear that feedback. Hopefully, Drew, in some small way, we're impacting the safety of work in many different organizations.
Drew, look each week, it's the same as every week. We ask a question in relation to the safety of work or the work of safety, and we examine the evidence surrounding it. What are we going to do for today's episode?
Drew: Well, regular listeners will know that every 10 episodes we give ourselves permission to talk about our own research. Today, we're going to be asking a very broad question, which underpins all of our own research, and it certainly sits underneath the individual questions we ask on each podcast episode as well.
Each podcast, our questions have something to do with the link between a safety idea, theory, or practice, and the outcomes of that idea in real situations in real organizations. That's the big question in safety. The way we're going to put it in this episode is what's the relationship between safety work and the safety of work?
It's very convenient, but we just happen to have a paper on that exact topic with almost those exact words. Since it's episode 50, we thought we'd commemorate the milestone with the discussion of that question and that paper.
David: I think we mentioned in episode 0 a year or so ago, now some of the histories of the podcast. Today, we're going to talk about this paper that we co-authored, specifically exploring this relationship between safety work and the safety of work at a broad or macro level, but first, a bit of background.
Look, my career has always been in safety. I guess I've made a career out of safety work, but perhaps embarrassingly, it wasn't probably until about a decade of being in safety that I actually started to become quite critical and reflective of this relationship or potentially lack of relationship between all of the safety work that goes on and the safety of the work for people who are exposed to the risk. And trying to think about all of the assumptions and expectations that I was holding.
I think before we started working together, you'd been researching and writing in this space for quite a long time.
Drew: Yeah, I don't know that that's because I started any earlier in my career than you did, David. I think it's just that I'm a smidgen older than you are. On that, since our listeners may like stats, and I know that some of them are as pedantic as I can be.
This is episode 50, but we started at episode 0, so technically, this is the 51st episode. I just want to note and acknowledge that. Episode 0 doesn't count. I wasn't a practitioner for nearly as long as you were, David, but I did spend a lot of time both as a practitioner and as an academic trying to understand individual safety practices and to understand the evidence for why they worked or didn't work.
Something that I struggled to articulate was that very often, there was no real clear idea about what we actually mean when we say that a particular safety practice works. I played around with different languages to describe that in different models. Eventually, I started using this triangle that had three concepts on it.
Assessment, which was measuring safety; insurance which was making things safer; and assurance, which was demonstrating that things were safe. I knew that that model didn't work because it didn't catch on remotely. No one else liked it, no one else used it. The other thing was that I could see that people put far more attention in real life on doing assessment and assurance activities than they spend on insurance activities, but it was very poorly defined what success for assessment and assurance was.
What exactly is a good risk assessment? What exactly is a good safety case, except if your project manager is happy and your customer is happy, then you must be doing safety well, but that's not really what we mean by success in safety.
The thread I really started pulling out was risk assessment. I was commenting on the fact that in accident investigations, people always seem surprised that risk assessment has gone badly. But when you look at other risk assessments, you see that the ones that get involved in accidents are no better or worse than the risk assessments that we use routinely.
I published a couple of papers on this under a title called Probative blindness talking about the fact that risk assessment is mainly about assurance rather than assessment. At the very least it reassures people far more than it gives us information, but by now, I was really seeing that the real questions in safety are really social and political rather than technical.
That's the point where I switched universities and departments, and it was pretty soon after that, David, that you and I met.
David: Yeah, and I think we both had this fascination with all of these safety activities. In my mind the practitioner side, but you had these very different views of different types of techniques and a much greater understanding, obviously, of the literature. That was our initial direction, and we didn't really talk too much about it until I was in the main phase of my data gathering as part of my Ph.D., which you're supervising me before, Drew.
I came back from data gathering. I might have mentioned this on the podcast before, and I had all of these activities that the safety people were doing. When I was asking them in their interviews, why are you doing that? It was all because my manager needs this, because the regulator needs this, or because we need to improve culture or something like that. Then I'd come back from observing meetings where we just have long discussions about things that weren't related to understanding or reducing the risk that the people in the organization faced.
I think I came back to you with this idea of all these political, social, and administrative stuff. Then you dusted off your insurance, assurance, and assessment model. I remember the day in your office that we just went to work on the whiteboard trying to figure out what this model and the description of some of these areas might look like.
Drew: Yeah, David, I guess it's probably worth saying a little bit about how Ph.D. candidates work and what a Ph.D. supervisor does. Typically, the Ph.D. candidate is the one who actually does all of the work, so they're the ones who go out and they collect the data, they analyze it, and they write it up. The supervisor's role always happens in these office meetings. The candidate comes into the office, and you have a conversation.
Sometimes it's like a management meeting giving the candidate a stern talking to. But when the relationship is going well, it's much more about just supervisors asking questions, giving direction, and feedback. Lots and lots of work happens on the whiteboard, as you write up ideas, scribble them out, and write them again.
The supervisor tries not to control the intellectual direction of the project, which is sometimes fairly hard if the supervisor has their own ideas about the work. That was one of the troubles that we had here was I had this original model, but I'd never finished it and never published anywhere. But it was clearly very relevant to the data that David had collected.
It also wasn't a very good model in the sense that it didn't fit neatly with any existing theory. If you've got an idea and no one else has thought of it before, probably the answer to that is you haven't looked hard enough. There are very few ideas which are so original, that you can't find anything else that it meshes with. In order to make sense of David's data, we needed to get the theory right and properly published so that we could then use it to analyze the data.
David: That was his sideline project, which turned into this paper. Which was really good because, by the time I wanted to cycle back around and analyze the data that I collected, I could use this safety work model as a framework for analyzing all of my data and trying to expand on that theory with all of the empirical information.
The paper was published in Safety Science in 2018. The authors are yourself and myself in that order, and I think that's actually might even be the only paper that we've written just as the two of us without other coauthors. I don't think there's anything else that's been written.
Drew, this paper title—Safety Work versus the Safety of Work—I've been asked a few times as to why we chose the conjunction versus. When people look at Safety I and Safety II, and all of these opposing ideas in safety. People have suggested to me, shouldn't it be an and because we talk in the paper about the organization doing safety work and needing to create the safety of work. Do you remember why we went with versus?
Drew: As far as I can remember, it was really just to emphasize that these are two distinct concepts that usually get confused. The versus is there to create rhetorical separation between them. We certainly didn't mean that it was intended to be opposing things that safety work was in opposition to the safety of work. I think at times, it definitely is the case that they're opposing. That's a point that we later developed into the idea of safety clutter, but there's no inherent contradiction. It's just that we wanted to make it as punchy and as clear as possible that these are two separate things.
David: Thanks, Drew. I asked you because you came up with the idea for the paper. Listeners may not know, but it's a unique skill that you have in coming up with interesting and catchy titles for papers, and you continue to demonstrate that every week with each podcast episode title. When I say, hey, how about this for a title? You go, no, how about this? It generally makes things more interesting.
From my memory, an original working title that I was using on a draft was something like, why doing more safety doesn't reduce fatalities, based on all the data that I collected, all the safety stuff, and the absence of the link with the safety of work.
Drew, I'm thinking about last week's episode where we talked about what exactly is a journal paper in the peer review process because this was my first go at trying to put forward some original ideas or some theory. You'd suggested that we go to a couple of colleagues and get, let's say, our own peer review before we even submit it to a journal for the first time.
We asked Rob Alexander who we co-authored the Manifesto paper with that we spoke about in episode 20, and Sidney Dekker to give us their initial peer review. Is that common because that was really valuable—from what I remember—for forming up the final draft that we submitted?
Drew: I think that is a really good discipline within well-functioning research groups. Papers get circulated and commented on before they go in for peer review. And it fixes some of the problems with peer review that you've got people that you can trust to make helpful comments. If you pick the right people, they can give you stricter scrutiny than the peer reviewers do.
I remember spending a couple of late nights, and we thought we had something really good in this paper, but we were just worried that this is one of those things that sounds really good until you show it to someone else and it falls apart.
We sent it to Sydney who cut the paper in half, said this half is good and this half you're just extending too far and trying to solve too many of the world's problems. That's the stuff that you really need someone that you trust to give you that feedback. And then Rob’s feedback was going through each part of the idea and telling us which bits just weren't clear and didn't make sense.
David: Yeah. It was really helpful. Let's talk a little bit about the paper and try to answer this question, what is the relationship between safety work and the safety of work? I suspect some of our listeners haven't read the paper, and some can get in touch with us and get a copy if they can't manage to get access.
The first key observation that we make in the paper is that we do lots of safety work in the organization, and the reasons that we say we're doing it don't actually make sense. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
Drew: If you ask people why they're doing these activities, their very immediate answer is very often we do it to keep people safe, but that only happens in the abstract. If you ask people you like, why do you do a risk assessment? Why do you invest to get insurance? They'll say it's to keep people safe. If you ask people specifically, why are you doing this one right now? Very often, it's because my manager told me to do it, it has to be done, or I need it for this report.
That immediate answer is consistent with the fact that we don't have evidence that these things do keep people safe. That's fine if it's just one or two activities or the evidence is weak, but these are activities that we do lots of and we do more of. They're growing in time, they're growing in complexity, and they're growing the number of people required to do them. And all of that is happening without the evidence base for them growing.
A few things you could assume there. If it is to keep people safe, then we are incompetent because we’re doing all of this stuff without good evidence. It's a form of malpractice. Or it could be that we're actually evil, that we're getting people to do all of this work pretending it's to keep them safe in the full knowledge that it doesn't. But neither of those is satisfactory explanations either.
Safety professionals are not incompetent. Safety professionals are not insincere, and yet they're doing all of this work without evidence. That's something that requires an explanation.
David: Drew, a simple example that I use for this is when I'll have a discussion with a safety professional or a manager saying, this person has to do a pre-start risk assessment checklist before they start the job. They have to do an inspection of their vehicle before they hop in and drive, or they have to do a documented work procedure for something.
I'll say, why? I want to keep people safe. Then I'll ask them, when you're at home on the weekend and you're mowing the lawn, do you pull out your Take 5 Pocket Book and do that? Or when you're going for a bike ride with your child, do you do a risk assessment and a procedure for that? Then it's like, well, no. It's an interesting conversation because then you say, do you not care about your family and you only care about your employees or have that conversation.
It's really hard because this is where I see people behaving a certain way inside their organizations, which is different from the way that they behave for the rest of their life. Which drew my interest in and drew ourselves to the theory that we'll talk about shortly in relation to institutional work because institutions and organizations are constructs. They're part of us, but they're not actually all of us, if that makes some sense.
Drew: David, that's a really acute example because I think it emphasizes that it's not the fact that when we do it at home it's unsafe. And it doesn't mean that when we do it in the organization, that doing the pre-start is a silly thing to do just because we don't do it at home.
The difference between at home and being at work is purely the fact that we are working for an organization. Any theory that's going to explain what the difference is going to have to explain something about what it means to work inside organizations. That's where we get to this second key observation of the paper. That inside organizations, our actions aren't just like inputs and outputs, where we do something and it produces a little bit of safety.
Some of the things we do are very goal-directed. We have a goal, we do something to achieve the goal, but there's also a lot of stuff that we do which is more expressive. There are lots more ways you can talk about expressive functions. Sometimes we talk about them as routine, sometimes we talk about them as rituals, and sometimes we talk about them as cultures. But the point is that they're not directly in that input, output—do this, get this result.
David: In that, we can find a lot of ideas when we talk about safety in between, like you said, instrumental functions, and expressive functions. When someone in an organization says the word safety, what are some of the different things that they could be referring to?
Drew: The most obvious one is they're doing safety stuff. When I do a Take 5, I'm doing safety. When I do a pre-start, I'm doing safety. When I tell a supervisor to take responsibility for safety, I'm saying I want them to do the inductions, the investigations, and the reports for safety. All that doing stuff is safety.
Then there's being physically safe. I go to work, I come home, and I'm not injured,.and we call that safety. We might talk about that in terms of risk, so the risk of this work is really low. It's safe work to do. This is the safe way to do it because there is a lower risk of doing it that way.
Then there's feeling safe. When I go to work, I feel safe, and we call that safety as well. Even if someone wasn't injured, if they were terrified the entire time, we wouldn't say that they were safe. Those different purposes—the doing, the being, and the feeling are all things that we call safety, but different tasks contribute in different ways.
That's hard to untangle until you brought up this idea of institutional work, which has already talked about these things before. It's a way of looking at organizations that lead us untangled some of these purposes that only exist when you're a part of an organization.
David: Yeah. It wasn't long before this that I'd done my literature review on the safety profession. So I was looking for different frameworks to try to understand all the different aspects of safety professional roles within organizations. It got me into a lot of social theory because it's about safety people relating to other people, but some of the broader social theory was more about not specific to organizational settings.
That social theory threw me into the institutional theory, which was specifically about how people relate to each other within institutional settings, and then, like we said when we talked about the episode on management fads and fashions, and all these things. It's interesting when you actually go, oh, I want to understand how people behave inside companies. And then you've got these entire fields of organizational psychology and institutional theory.
Some of the differences between the two are organizational psychology tends to think about the individual within the system. The institutional theory tries to look at the relationships, the norms, and the way that the system sustains itself and function. We make a central argument in our paper that safety work or safety management activities are a form of institutional work, or safety management in its entirety is a form of institutional work.
Like in any field, there are a few authors that seem to have been there since the start conceptualizing and defining the field. In institutional work, there's Thomas Lawrence and Roy Suddaby. They both work at the Canadian University. Simon Fraser in Vancouver, and the University of Alberta, respectively. For about the last 15 years, they've been leading the development of this area of research.
What I might do, Drew, is link to a couple of institutional work articles in the show notes for this episode.
Let's just talk about definitions for a minute. An institution where we use the word institution or organization—we can use them interchangeably for our purpose. An institution is those enduring elements of social life that affect the behavior and beliefs of individuals by providing templates for action, cognition, and emotion.
Work is an intentional activity. We are trying to achieve something with all of our jobs every single day. What we're trying to achieve is about transforming the organization, responding to the day to day demands, or even just working by habit and by routine, and all of these things are considered work.
We've got this whole field of research, Drew, about understanding how institutions work, and then how people work within them. And we found a really promising direction to explore safety management.
Drew: One of the things that this lets us do is it lets us look at the work of safety professionals very much in the same way that we might look at any frontline work. Something modern safety science does really well compared to older safety science is it pays a lot of respect to frontline work. And it treats things that happen as curious rather than as wrong or to be criticized.
The trouble with that is that very often—we can probably name some names here if we wanted to—it comes at the expense of being sympathetic to frontline work, but really critical of safety professionals and managers. What we wanted to do was treat the work that those people do with the same curiosity and respect, something that we don't want to criticize. We want to examine it and describe it.
David: Yeah. That was my perspective and probably somewhat defensive being a career safety professional, and just working with all the challenges, nuances, politics, and things that need to be managed when some of the safety (I suppose) theorists talk about safety officials being unhelpful, unnecessary, and a distraction. That was where I was trying to—with my research—go, well, hang on a minute. Let's understand, let's empathize, and let's help rather than criticize.
We've got this idea. Safety work—the stuff that happens in organizations that are trying to shape, action, thoughts, and beliefs of others. To do that, we do certain things. We categorized four different types of safety work broadly consistent with the institutional work theory. Do you want to just introduce those four different types of safety work, and then we'll go into a little bit more detail with some examples?
Drew: Okay. The very brief versions of them are that social safety is very much conceptual work. It's aimed at making safety be a value in the organization and letting the organization believe that it is a champion of safety. By the way, I sometimes put that we want to believe that we're the good guys, and social safety helps us do that. Then there's demonstrated safety, which is much more at structural work that's aimed at stakeholders outside the organization. Showing them that our organization is meeting its obligations.
Then there's administrative safety, which is also a type of structural work, but it's turned inwards. It creates this scaffolding and mechanisms for safety to get involved with operational work. And then the final one is physical safety, which is doing work which directly transforms the work environment, directly changes the front line in the interest of safety.
David, do you want to flesh them out? We'll go through each one and maybe throw some examples in?
David: Yeah, that's a great idea, Drew. Social safety—and we're not starting there for any other reason, then it's one of the four. We don't claim any to be more or less important, or more or less dominant than the others. But Social Safety is the creation of this internal narrative that puts safety in a special position. The organization displays and reinforces its collective commitment to the well-being of people involved with the company's operations.
The organization will talk about safety as a value, safety first, or safety as a priority, and then do a whole range of things within the business to try to promote and reinforce that message. Unless the organization actually stops doing any physical work, safety cannot always be the constant top priority. There are constant reinforcement and clarification of the messaging. Some examples, you might want to throw some examples of what social safety work might look like.
Drew: Yeah. This is going to be different between different organizations, which of these activities people do, but it'd be hard-pressed to find any organization that doesn't have a collection of these things that they do.
Safety slogans, things like saying that everyone goes home safe every day, every accident is preventable, or safety is no accident. Having those things are routinely said within the organization. Sometimes we have branded safety programs. Sometimes companies will even have a special logo for their safety program. These are things like safety first, zero harm, next gear. We think of those as branded safety programs.
Sometimes we set aside particular times in places that are just about safety. For a few seconds or a few minutes, safety can genuinely be the number one priority. Sometimes, those might be safety shares at meetings or safety moments. Some organizations say that every agenda has to have safety as the first item or as the fifth item.
Safety stand-downs probably fit into that as well, and then we use safety as an adjective throughout the organization to mark certain things as special or sacred. We don't just have conversations, we have safety conversations. We don't just have requirements, we have safety requirements.
David: As this putting of safety in a place where it's conceptual work. We're trying to create a consistent belief value, understanding, prioritization around safety in the organization by all of these routines, activities, rituals, and things that go on. Even management leadership visits fall into that category, safety days fall into that category, and t-shirts, coffee cups, pens, and everything else.
It's just the frequency and the recency of the communication around safety and the symbolism around safety in the organization is this broad category of social safety that organizations pay a lot of attention to.
Drew: It's probably worth mentioning there that this can be stabilizing. It can be to try to just reinforce safety. In some organizations, if you're trying to transform the way people think about safety, that's also a type of Social Safety work. If you've got safety practitioners trying to maybe push the organization a bit more towards resilience, a bit more towards the safety to approach, or towards safety differently, you can see that as a type of social safety as well. It's less stabilizing, it's more transforming, but it's still that conceptual institutional work.
David: Yeah. The next one we'll talk about is demonstrated safety work. This consists of activities that assure safety to stakeholders outside of the organization. I like to describe this as an activity that's pushing outwards from the point of risk towards other people that have an interest in the actual risks and how they're being managed.
To flourish or to continue to operate, a business needs the stakeholders—regulators, communities, customers, or clients—to believe in the safety of the company's products and activities. It has to be seen. I think, for us to be sustainable and successful, the company has to be seen to be safe. Without this approval, then an organization won't, over time, sustain its business.
Stakeholders that pose a threat to the organization's sustainability, then they can create alliances and institutions. And we see this with regulators, trade unions, activist investors, and things like that, and demand this assurance from the organization. Organizations have a whole raft of activities inside them to be able to provide this demonstration of safety to those stakeholders through. Drew, have you got some examples of those?
Drew: Yes. I think this idea of demonstrated safety fixes up one of the original ideas I had when I was talking about assurance versus insurance. People in engineering organizations would be very comfortable with the idea of safety assurance, but it's not so familiar to people doing very operational work. Everyone does something that is demonstrated safety.
If you're in an engineering organization, you're probably doing things that are very much about assurance like producing safety cases, producing risk assessments and sharing them to outside stakeholders, or getting licensing for products or installations. If you're a small business, maybe what you're doing is much more to do with regulatory approval.
Getting into keeping a license to operate, keeping the inspectors off your back. If you're in a construction firm, maybe it's much more about audits, certifications, and keeping up your standards, subcontractor pre-qualification with your principal contractor, or showing your clients that you've got the right ticks in the right boxes to get that next contract.
David: One of the nuances, Drew, with demonstrated safety, I just see here—this is what happens when you publish something and keeps thinking about the same thing for a couple of years after you publish it. You realize we described demonstrated safety as stakeholders outside of the organization.
Increasingly, when I talk to organizations about this, I also describe it as internal stakeholders that need safety management demonstrated to them like senior management teams, the board of directors, and parent companies, as well. The work we're doing with organizations is finding that internal demonstration of safety, there's a huge amount of activity generated in that space from an operational unit to demonstrate safety back into the broader organization.
Drew: Yeah. The way you put it before, David, about pushing away from the point of risk, that's the true meaning of demonstrated safety. It becomes most obvious where there are interfaces that it needs to cross as it pushes away from that point of risk. If it crosses from a local unit into the global business, it becomes very clear. If it crossed across an organizational boundary to an outside stakeholder, it becomes very visible. But demonstrated safety can be as simple as the team leader filling out a risk assessment, not for the team, but for the company.
David: Yeah, exactly. The third one we'll talk about is administrative safety, and this is this enactment of a controllable, repeatable, and measurable safety routine. As with the demonstrated safety work, administrative safety activities are a form of structural institutional work. They're designed to manage the day to day activities of the organization.
They're trying to translate goals and objectives to do with safety in the organization into concrete plans with activities, responsibilities, and clear expectations for what is required of people. This is how we run our organizations, as Daniel [...] we try to get this dependable role performance into our organization so that we know the way that people are doing their work and how we can know that it may or may not be safe.
However Drew, the more that we understand about (I suppose) complex systems and how accidents emerge from work or complex systems, the less we can claim to have this definitive knowledge and solutions that we've got inside all of our safety management systems. Because we don't have a lot of these solutions, we just bundle up and continue to push forward with everything we've got in the organization in terms of rules and requirements for that. Do you want to talk about some examples in that space or say any more about administrative safety?
Drew: This is the part of the model that I've always been most uncomfortable with. It went through a few different names. It started off talking about it as actually bureaucratic safety. We realized that the trouble is that, often, this work seems to lack any direct purpose. It's like the work exists to maintain a system, and the hope is that the existence of that system is then going to properly support the demonstrated safety or the physical safety that we'll talk about next.
But often, the work seems futile because it really is maintaining a system that's not necessarily doing anything except keeping the system going. Some things that we do within administrative safety, some of them have to do with actually operating a formal safety management system. If you've got something that you call a safety management system, if you've got procedures, and if you've got work instructions—the existence of those things, the maintenance of those things, and the recording of those things, that's administrative safety. If you have KPIs or you collect safety metrics and report them, that's administrative safety.
Internal safety reporting, so communications from one person to another according to a schedule, or according to a defined time that a report needs to be given. And then lots of things that are written down. Take 5's inductions and safe work method statements. Even some types of training would fit into administrative safety.
David: Yeah, and there'd be lots of things like emergency evacuation exercise, drills, or re-induction training every 12 months and all of these rules and requirements that we have in our organization too. I suppose to try to create some certainty around the way that the business is managing its risk surgery.
Drew, the fourth one that we'll talk about is physical safety. One of the things—maybe it’s your engineering background, you’ve always talked about an accident that needs hazardous energy sources and a person to come together in the same time and space to create an accident. Physical safety is safety work that directly changes the work, task, or environment. So the people, the equipment, and the work process.
Our physical safety work activities (I suppose) have the potential for a more direct causal link to operational safety. If you think about it like the other types of work we’ve mentioned about demonstrated, administrative, or social, they have to have an impact on the physical work via some sort of physical safety.
For example, you might do an audit as demonstrated safety for a stakeholder and identify some change to a work process, which you then go and implement as a physical safety change in the business. Physical safety is only a safety work activity that's one step removed from the safety of work (I suppose) as opposed to a minimum of two steps removed like the others.
Drew: If you think of demonstrated safety as pushing out from the point of risk, administrative safety—when it is working properly—is pushing in towards the point of risk. Physical safety is the stuff that directly changes that point of risk and therefore changes the risk itself. Apologies for the engineering background, but if you imagine the actual physical matter and energy that's occurring at work, what can we do to actually change that?
If we directly change the physical environment, the most naughty version of that would be putting out witch’s hats. You’ve physically changed the work environment. A much bigger change might be you conduct work on the ground instead of on the fifth floor. You've changed the work environment.
Changes to tools or PPE. People are literally holding different things in their hands or wearing different things, or changes to the actual way work are performed. I'm going to be very clear there. Changing the procedure doesn't change the way the work is performed, it changes the procedure. If in turn, the person does different actions, that’s changes to the way work is performed.
David: Drew, I think people would—I suppose, it’s here before we move on. That we talked about those four different types of safety of work, and this is where I think we'll talk about practical takeaways later. The chance to be really critical of the safety of work activities in our organizations because it is fairly easy to not critically reflect on it, but it is easy just to think, well, that's okay. All of my stuff contributes directly to physical work, every inspection, every audit, and every meeting that I have.
Drew, I don't know if I’ve told you this story. I gave a safety clutter presentation once to about 40 people. I define safety clutter and then I basically asked people to put your hand up if there's something in your organization that you do for safety that you are unsure has a direct impact on the safety of work. Not one hand went up. Then I tried to ask the question a different way, and then I tried the reverse, which is, so everyone in this room thinks that everything that gets done in their organization for safety has a direct and measurable contribution to the safety of work. Fifty people said yes.
I was like, okay, you’re not going to like the rest of this presentation then. I mean through the presentation, people understood what I was talking about. But it was that absence of that critical reflection and that just ongoing belief in the assumption that everything we do in our organization for safety has this direct contribution to reducing risk.
Drew: Yes. Since we wrote the paper, I've tried a number of different ways of explaining that. One of them is to ask the opposite question to say if you stopped doing this activity right now, would people automatically be less safe? They have to give any sort of explanation or reason, then it's not directly changing safety. There is some sort of causal link.
If the risk assessment wasn't filled out, would someone be automatically less safe? The only true answer to that is no because even if the risk assessment is keeping people safe, it's doing it by. They do the risk assessment. As a result of the risk assessment, they're thinking about the task changes. As a result of their thinking changes, they do the talks differently. Getting rid of the risk assessment doesn't automatically make them less safe. They may still do the task exactly the same way without the risk assessment.
David: I suppose, that’s the existential question for the safety profession. If for nothing else though, we’ve given the safety profession a lot of legitimacy and all of these other activities that they're doing in the organizations for different stakeholders as well. That's the question that we want to ask because the final type of safety—which obviously we talk about—is the safety of work.
I think in the model we talked about operational safety, which is after we put all of the safety work activity together—administrative safety, demonstrated safety, social and physical safety—and wrap all that up in our organization together, with everything else that goes into planning and executing work, then how safe is the actual physical task of work when people are performing it?
That's where we end the model, Drew, because our understanding is maybe work is safe all the time. Organizations assume it's because of all of the stuff they’re doing in safety, and we're trying to ask them to go, let's look at each of these things one by one. Let's look at the things that we don't call safety as we know from more complexity theories. I don’t know if you’d agree with me, but I would argue that there are more things that contribute to the safety of work broadly across the organization than there are the contributions of any of the safety of work specific activities that we do.
Drew: Yes. Maybe the true title of the paper is replacing that word versus a big question mark because that's really what we want to know. We're fairly sure that there is a connection. We’re fairly sure that lots of the stuff we do in the name of safety—all of the safety of work we do—has some impact on the safety of work. But we don't know which bits. We don't necessarily know exactly how we find it hard to articulate how.
We know that some of it definitely doesn't. We know that some of it we do for totally different reasons. Only when we acknowledge that there is that gap and that question mark, does it let us have those frank and clear conversations about why we're doing what we're doing, and what we might be willing to change based on the evidence?
David: Drew, the format of this paper—I suppose, it’s a theory paper where we outlined the background, the challenge, or the phenomenon that we're trying to understand. We proposed this theory of four different types of safety work and how it may or may not be connected to the safety of work. We went on to describe a whole range of other things around the theory. Good initial theory papers do then actually raise further questions saying these are the questions that we haven't answered yet. These are the questions that we should be able to answer if this theory stands the test of time.
There are five sections in the backend of the paper. We might just talk about them really briefly—given time, if you like. And then we can go on to some practical takeaways. Are you happy with that?
Drew: Yeah, I think we certainly got time to talk about a couple of these things. The really most obvious one is that these different types of work have to compete for attention within the organization. That's why acknowledging the different purposes really matters. For example, if you're in some industries like railways, then demonstrated safety is going to take up a lot of your time and attention. There are legal and structural requirements to produce safety cases, to do safety activities that go with those.
Very often, those are conducted almost like a separate product from producing the technical equipment that's going to go on to the tracks. There’s a clear balance there where we’re taking time and attention away from improving design towards persuading people that it is a good design. That can triple the cost of a product during that extra work.
David: At a practical level Drew, we've developed the safety science innovation lab and developed some questionnaires to help organizations to understand their safety of work orientation and its relationship between safety of work activities and the safety of work. Doing that work recently, seeing how that trade-off gets made at an individual practitioner level.
A safety professional saying, I really should be at the field today following up on this issue, but I need to get this report to my manager by the end of the day. The conversations we’re having with those practitioners is that it's an organization that needs to spend some time discussing how it wants our safety professionals to make trade-off decisions. This competition for attention happens at the organizational level. It happens at a day-to-day practitioner level as well.
Drew: Another way they can interrelate more positively is that in most organizations, there probably is a bit of mutual reinforcement across all of the different types of work. If you think that every time you do a bit of social safety work and you change the way people think about safety or maybe even improve safety’s priority, that is going to have some positive effect on the quality of the administrative work, the timeliness, and whether it gets done.
We hope that running a safety management system with procedures has some control over the stability of work and the prevention of unsafe work practices.
David: Yes, they do relate, but also in the negative as well. If you have problems with physical safety, in this where the organization gets threatened in relation to physical safety, then it's going to spill over into maybe more administrative requirements, more social safety activity to reinforce the importance. Maybe more demonstrated safety if there’s a notice from a regulator or something like that.
Threats to each one of these things like non-compliance from an administrative point of view, or someone thinking management isn't taking it seriously from a social point of view—a regulator notice or a near miss. These threats in relation to any of these types of work can cause work to happen in all of the other areas of the model.
Drew: One of the things that we were playing with when we put the paper together was this idea that after an accident, people can get confused about what they actually need to fix. Always what you want to fix is the physical safety and operational safety, but the recommendations we put in place are often actually in the other areas. We put in requirements that amount to demonstrating safety, that amount to administrative safety.
You see after an accident, an organization’s amount of administrative activity goes up. Their need to demonstrate things to outside stakeholders goes up. That can, in turn, drain energy away from resources necessary for improving the front line
David: I remember drawing those models and it's quite ironic. I probably got some photos of those original models. If I could drag one out of my phone, I might put in the comments of the podcast episode. We’re saying it's quite ironic or concerning that at that time when there's an obvious need post-incident for a lot of work to go into physical safety. That work can, like we said before, be a competition for attention. That work can flow into other areas of the model, which may be less impactful on physical safety.
Drew: We’ll have to do a whole episode sometime on industrial manslaughter. But I use the safety of work model to reason about the effect of industrial manslaughter laws. They drastically drive up the need to demonstrate safety. You drive up the need to demonstrate safety that drives up the amount of administrative safety. Unless you increase the amount of safety resources in your organization, the logical effect is that an industrial manslaughter law is going to remove resources and energy away from frontline safety.
David: It’s interesting you mentioned administrative safety there drawing resources away. This is probably one of the things I've thought about quite a bit recently because when we did this model, I had for a little while this belief that we could get every single safety practice in the organization and put it in one of the four quadrants on the model and say this activity is this or this activity is this.
What I realized with at least my data collection around the safety profession is the same activity can sit in different parts of the model depending on why it’s being performed and how it's being performed. The example I give is something like a contract of safety improvement plan.
Your contractors have a few incidents, and you’re the client, and you tell your contractor that they need to prepare a contract to safety improvement plan. For that contractor, that could be one of two things. That could be a demonstrated safety activity where the only reason they're doing that plan is to get the client off their back and nothing is physically changing in the work environment. Or it could be done as a process where they go, actually, this is a great opportunity for us to engage with their front line, and we can identify things that we need to change. It could be an administrative safety task that directly flows down to physical safety.
I see a lot of this administrative stuff as being—it's interesting to think in your own organization how much of that administrative stuff is being done for demonstrative purposes and how much of that administrative stuff is being actually driven towards physical safety purposes. That's a good test to ask for those requirements.
Drew: Another good example that works as a real litmus test is incident investigation. Incident investigations fall into every box. It's a power struggle which box is getting the most attention. Every incident investigation—to a certain extent—is done for social reasons. We do it to restore a sense of normalcy, to convince people that we are responding appropriately, that we care about the accident, and we care about you. It's unacceptable that this has happened, and we are sending a clear signal that it's not going to happen again. That's all social safety.
Every incident investigation is also done partly as a legal defense. We do it so that we've got something to show outside when they ask about the incident. Might not be strictly legal, it may be to show clients or to show principal contractors that we have done our job. Incident investigations are done according to a particular format, according to a particular process. They may be organizational rules that require the incident investigation. All of that is administrative. They would hope—with all of that attention taken—there's a little bit leftover that the incident investigation is going to make recommendations that change the way the work happens.
David: Absolutely. I think it's interesting. The last point we’ll make before we go into practical takeaways is about the negotiation of power. Depending on the emphasis in the organization around activity, power is given to certain actors in the system. An organization that focuses heavily on physical safety and pushing towards the point of risk—with goal-directed risk reduction work—is an organization that is giving a lot of power in relation to safety to the front line of the workforce.
A lot of attention, effort, resource, and engagement is being directed there. An organization that is doing a lot of social safety activity is focusing heavily on a management level, generally. An organization that is largely administrative is giving a lot of power to the safety department and the safety profession who owns, creates, administers, and monitors all of those administrative requirements. Obviously, companies that do a lot of demonstrated work give a lot of power to those external stakeholders and regulators, and others.
It’s interesting to see the way that power in the organization flows around depending on where the organization's emphasis is in relation to the model
Drew: Some of the reasons why we think the model is useful for thinking about safety within an organization, both from a research point of view, but also just from understanding what we do and understanding why we do it. David, do you want to try to turn that into a couple of more practical takeaways for our listeners?
David: Hopefully there's been a few practical things along the way, and people are getting a different framework to think about everything we do in our organization called safety. That was the first thing that I think was important was that we were trying to create a nuanced language when we talk about safety. This difference between being safe, doing safety, and feeling safe. They're not the same thing, but a lot of times, we call them all safety.
When people say, how is safety going? Do they mean how do people feel in relation to safety? How's their compliance in relation to safety going? How’s their department going? Just saying, how are we going in relation to safety is not a very nuanced or useful question. We were trying to give language through this model. I think it's important for practitioners to use very clear language when talking about different aspects in relation to safety within their organization.
I think also, Drew, being very critically reflective. I talked about my lost decade of not really questioning too much about all the safety of work activities I was doing in my roles. But being critically reflective of why you’re doing certain pieces of safety of work. Don’t fall into the trap of saying just to improve safety, but think about the drivers of work. Who is it for, whose needs are being addressed, and ultimately, do I understand how this work might be connected to improving the safety of work for people exposed to risks in the business?
Drew: Can I throw in there, David, that being critically reflective doesn't need to mean existential despair. I think that one thing that the safety of work model offers is it legitimizes some of this work—which is not directed at improving frontline safety—and says that this is necessary and valuable stuff for organizations to work for them to be able to get the other work done.
By facilitating this work, you’re not wasting time, you’re not being bureaucratic. I mean, you might be—for other reasons—wasting time and being bureaucratic. Just because something is directed at demonstrating safety or managing a system doesn't mean that it doesn't have intrinsic value for the organization functioning as an institution.
David: Absolutely. That's a really good point, Drew. The last thing I want to do is give people existential dilemmas. I think it's important to know that this part of my role is serving these needs and purposes. Hopefully, there’s a bit of time for people to carve out the balance that they'd like to see in their role and help them have conversations with their organization about that balance.
The third one, Drew, I might hand over to you because it’s your mantra for what you like to see for people in relation to any safety activity that happens in any organization.
Drew: Listeners can’t see our notes, and this is in the text that says that David wrote this bit for me to say. It just says evaluate, evaluate, evaluate, which I think is—I'm almost happy to just leave that as a takeaway. What we mean by that is that's why we measure and evaluate safety of work. Ultimately, we’re measuring that link between the safety work and the safety of work. The heart of any evaluation is trying to find a way to examine that link to measure it. And to demonstrate to ourselves that if we think that this is working, that it is actually working by changing the safety of work.
David: Yeah. Drew, I’ll use one last example, and then we'll wrap up. I use the example of a company that I was involved with a couple of years ago now. A mining company that was convinced that their Take 5 pre-start assessment was really important in identifying and resolving hazards. That was the mechanism. They said, people can raise an issue in the morning, it gets fixed, and then we can move on.
It was like, well how do you know that? This was about the time when we're doing the safety clutter work. Do you just believe that, or do you have evidence? They said, no, we believe that’s the way it happens.
I remember emptying a box of these Take 5's all over the floor, and we look through and there were only two that had here’s the hazard ticked. Everything else was just yes, yes, it's okay. Two of thousands of these things. It was the same person who’s done it two consecutive days. I actually went out on the site. Maybe being a bit assertive, but I said, let’s try and find out. I went out on-site and found the person, and they said, yeah, that was a broken piece of equipment. I reported it the first day and then reported it the second day. No one came to speak to me about it or did anything about it, so I just started ticking yes again. That was the end of it.
I think what you said there about evaluate, evaluate is if you’re of the belief that your pre-start risk assessment is really important to identify and result hazards, which enhances the safety of work, then go and check that it’s happening the way you think it is.
Drew: That's a fantastic story, David. Other things we'd like to know, anything you'd like to hear back from the listeners after 50 episodes?
David: Look, we love getting feedback. We like the engagement on LinkedIn—the questions, the ideas for episodes, things that we can answer on the podcast that can help you. We’ve had a couple recently. We had a good friend reach out in relation to blame and learning for some influence they were trying to have in their organization. It's very easy to get in touch with us, and we’d love to hear your ideas. But also just some feedback. What's the next year going to look like?
We’ve tried a few different types of episodes. We’ve tried interviewing researchers. We've tried giving some how-to type of episodes. Let us know how everything's working for you in relation to the podcast.
Drew, the question for this week, episode number 50 was what is the relationship between safety work and the safety of work, and your answer is?
Drew: Well, if safety work and safety of work were Facebook friends, I think their relationship status would be it's complicated. Just by recognizing that they're not the same thing, I think that starts us down a path towards a better understanding of safety and helps bring the two things closer together.
David: Thanks, Drew. Thanks for talking alongside me for the last year or so. Hopefully, we can still find the time to do it for a couple more years yet. That's it for this week. We hope you found this episode thought-provoking and ultimately useful in shaping the safety of work in your own organization. Like we said, send any comments, questions, ideas for future episodes to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.