Why it’s important to know the difference and what you can do to make safety management activities more effective in your organisation.

Put simply, safety work is everything that happens in your organisation with the primary objective of managing safety – think toolbox talks, safety moments, signage, risk assessments, audits and incident investigations. People are expected to comply at all times and are judged personally if they ever dare question a task’s relevance.

These activities are put in place purely to improve the safety outcomes of an organisation based on an assumption that there’s a direct relationship between this safety work and people not getting hurt.

This safety work doesn’t contribute to an organisation’s operational output – it doesn’t help to make or sell more goods to its customers and there’s limited evidence to show that many of these safety activities have reduced the risk of people injuring themselves.

For 10 to 20 years, organisations have convinced themselves that they’re doing everything they can to be safer. So much so, that because of the safety work that’s now present in many organisations, they expect that nothing should ever to go wrong.

Yet in the same period of time, we’ve seen the same number, and in some industries an increasing number of fatalities occur.

We’re not suggesting organisations abandon all of their safety work, but there’s certainly a case for critiquing the blind assumption that safety work = safer outcomes. Understanding the safety of work – how people do their jobs and in what contexts – is the missing piece.

Safety work hasn’t necessarily improved the safety of work.

In Queensland, Australia, six mining fatalities in six months, in one of the most safety-complicit sectors, has prompted a government-initiated ‘safety reset’ for the industry. Sadly, this reset looks like it won’t be doing anything differently to what many of these organisations already do for safety frequently – have conversations about safety.

What do they think can possibly change?

When organisations put their focus and energy on the safety of work rather than blindly reinforcing prescriptive safety work activities, they’re able to see how work is actually being performed today and understand what’s involved when it’s done well and as a result, safely.

The safety of work is about understanding individual, environmental and technological factors present at work every day – learning all the ways that frontline people continuously manage the risks they encounter in the face of ever-present productivity pressure. 

It’s only by understanding and supporting work as done, that safety outcomes are achieved as a by-product.

In contrast, dedicated safety work activities alongside normal work tasks are as much ritual, routine and dramatic performance as they are goal-directed safety risk reduction measures.

Much of this safety work is performed to provide the organisation with confidence that it’s taking the right actions to meet external obligations and demonstrate a value-based social commitment to safety.

Today’s safety work activities fall into four categories:

  1. Social safety – communication activities aimed at maintaining safety as a value and the organisation’s belief that it’s a champion of safety
  2. Demonstrated safety – verification activities that convince external stakeholders that an organisation is meeting its safety obligations
  3. Administrative safety – safety activities that are driven by the company’s internal management systems and processes
  4. Physical safety – practical activities that directly transform the work environment, equipment or resources in the interest of safety.

To improve the safety of work – there needs to a physical intervention.

It’s important to distinguish the kinds of activities organisations are so invested in. Critically, unless safety activities directly intervene with the tools, tasks, resources of people actually doing the work, it’s unlikely to have any impact on the safety of work.

Of all of the categories of safety work above, it’s physical safety work that has the direct connection to the safety of work.

If organisations wish to improve the safety of work, they need to invest in physical interventions that bring about change to the way that work is performed. All incidents involve matter and energy in space and time. Therefore, unless a safety work activity leads to a change in the control or protection of people against sources of energy, then it has not had an impact on improving the safety of work.

Organisations need to get clear on their purpose and intention around their safety work.

What are they trying to do? Will instituting ‘safety moments’ at the start of meetings bring about change if workers aren’t yet comfortable critiquing current safety practices? Are safety work activities tokenistic? Or are safety work activities leading to real reflection on and change to the way that work is done in the organisation?

These are the questions that organisations need to ask to understand the relationship between safety work and safety of work in their organisation.

By focusing on the safety of work, safety work can become more powerful.

It’s understandable that organisations are trying to keep up, add and move forward. It’s not in their playbook to stop and critically evaluate their existing safety practices – but when it comes to safety, we think they should.

If an organisation’s safety work doesn’t have a strong connection with the safety of work, then how can it possibly make a profound impact when it comes to safety? By focusing their effort on the safety of work and working backwards from the sharp-end, organisations will be more effective in their safety management efforts.

Tips for improving the safety of work

When the same term is used for multiple concepts, it becomes hard to talk about the relationships between those concepts. ‘Safety’, for example, is a deceptively simple term that obscures a variety of purposes, activities, and outcomes. For example, organisations interchangeably use safety as a verb and a noun, ‘we do safety’ and ‘we want safety’ – these are different concepts.

By distinguishing between safety work (doing safety) and the safety of work (doing work safely), we can look at different institutional purposes when it comes to safety activities. It also allows for framing of better questions around when and how our safety work impacts the safety of work.

If your organisation is more focussed on managing the politics and administration of its current safety work, rather than physically improving the safety of work, there are actions you can take and things you can think about that will help:

Encourage open debate around the effectiveness of safety work

We need people across the organisations to provide feedback on the efficacy of safety work activities that they are performing. If they believe they will be ostracised for appearing not to care about safety, then the organisation will never be able to understand the effectiveness of safety work activities.

Many organisations have a bullish approach to safety, where any criticism or noncompliance is seen as not caring. Open conversations are the best way to bring about improvement in the impact of safety work on the safety of work.

Always be open minded that how you think about a particular safety work activity may not be the same way that someone else in your organisation thinks about it.

Critically evaluate what safety work is performed by the front-line, managers and safety professional.

What are the safety tasks your front-line workers, managers, and safety professionals are performing in your organisation? What drives these activities and what are the outcomes? What is the connection between these safety activities and the performance of core operational work tasks? 

Take the time to investigate those safety work activities where there is misalignment, or a hint of feedback that they are a waste of time or performed as a ‘tick and flick’ compliance activity.

Understand how senior management requests land at lower levels of the organisation.

Top down safety initiatives and requirements need to be carefully managed right through to operational execution. Even with the best of intent, management-directed safety work activities lacking the collective ownership of the people performing them are likely to become and be performed as administrative and demonstrated safety work.

This directly limits their effectiveness in impacting the safety of work. Check carefully to see that actions and activities coming from senior management aren’t corrupted into political or compliance activities by the time they reach the people who are executing the activities.

Better still, involve the people who are performing or intended to be kept safe by the safety work activities, in the design of the processes and tasks.