How did we get here?

For more than 100 years, organisations have managed safety and work performance by standardising and prescribing a way to perform tasks – then monitoring their performance. This made sense when our work largely comprised consistent and repeatable processes.

Over time though, our perceptions of effective management diverged. From the 1960s, broader management and psychology literature began to discuss a less prescriptive and more user-centred approach to work performance. While the 80s and 90s introduced Total Quality Management systems that attempted to tighten managements control over work.

One of the biggest shifts in safety thinking occurred after two incidents involving complex technology: the Three Mile Island nuclear plant meltdown in 1979 and NASA’s Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986.  Upon review, there’d been no deviation from prescribed work processes in either incident.  Instead, these accidents had occurred due to the norms and assumptions in place at the sharp end of each organisation around work – due to things that the managers and administrators who wrote the documents and oversaw the work hadn’t imagined.

What’s the difference between Safety I and Safety II?

If Safety I was designed to look at incidents in the past and build processes to make us safer in the future, Safety II argues that we need to look at all the normal day-to-day activity within organisations that are performed successfully today, to determine the ongoing factors that lead to safer outcomes.

Safety II believes that Safety I traditionally focused on the opposite of safety – preventing the unsafe. Whereas, Safety II looks at normal work and tries to understand how safety is created every day, rather than reactively focusing on incidents and problems as they occur.

To be clear, Safety II is an expansion of Safety I – they’re not dichotomous, but complimentary. Most organisations are still operating with a Safety I mindset for a raft of reasons. If we want to see real change in safety management, we need to create a bridge between the two.

Why does it matter?

If organisations only focus on incidents that have happened or they believe are likely to happen, then they’re focusing on only a very small window of behaviour and then prescribing work processes and activities to all of their workers.

But there are actions that prevent things from going wrong that are not in our safety manuals and procedures. If we don’t look for and understand these, we miss a valuable opportunity to gain critical safety insights that will enable us to effectively support our people to continue working safely.

Following the tradition of Resilience Engineering, Danish Professor Emeritus Erik Hollnagel coined the term Safety II in the 2000s when he implored organisations to examine safe operation – as opposed to the existing focus on unsafe operation he labelled Safety I.

A Safety II approach looks for the capacities that create the ability for people in an organisation to succeed at their work under varying conditions, in contrast to the traditional view of safety, which is that people succeed at their work by following the rules.

We liken Safety I and Safety II to a grain of sand on a piece of paper. The sand represents incidents and the things that go wrong in an organisation; the paper represents all of the work in the organisation.  If we only focus on the sand and trying to find it, we will make judgements about the whole page without taking the time to understand it all. It’s irrational to think you understand safety by only looking at things that are unsafe.

Safety II instead shows us how to look at everything on the paper and directs us to find out what normally makes an organisation safe and successful, so we can try to support more of that behaviour in business.

Safety I is having safety professionals sit on the side lines, forming conclusions and driving safety procedures at a distance, only to leap into action when people don’t follow the prescribed processes or if there’s an incident at work.

Safety II is having safety professionals that are actively engaged in understanding day-to-day work.  Bringing insights about the changing shape of safety risk in the organisation and facilitating proactive actions that create safe and successful daily work outcomes.

We’ve been aware for some time that the working world is not as simple as writing down a procedure and expecting people to follow it. Focusing on non-compliance and safety procedures when incidents occur is not enough when it comes to effective safety management.

If we want to provide better support for our people to work safely every day, then we need to expand our safety management approach consistent with Safety II theory and practice.

Organisations need to look at the work – to determine what’s going well and how the organisation is creating these successful outcomes.

Safety II understands the grain of sand, but focuses on the whole page.