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Human Error and Safety: Are We Doing Enough?

By Steve Prentice
Published: October 31, 2019
Presented by EHS Congress
Key Takeaways

Safety should be about what goes right, not what went wrong.

Caption: Safety leader speaking to workers Source: Drazen Zigic / iStock

Safety professionals often ask themselves if we're doing enough in terms of human error and safety. If you ask Sidney Dekker, he might tell you that we're actually doing too much. Or, more precisely, we're doing too much of the wrong thing.

Dekker is an expert inhuman factors and safety and, according to him, organizations have been placing a greater focus on compliance and paperwork over the past two decades. Although regulatory procedures can help us define and enforce safe practices, he suggests that disproportionate attention given to these processes, along with a focus on unrealistic policies, are pushing us further away from the goal of genuine safety.

In Safety Differently, Mr. Dekker highlights how, in an effort to standardize and manage safety processes, a bureaucratic culture has defined people as a “problem to control,” rather than a resource to harness.


Rather than defining safety as the absence of errors of violation, safety should focus on making employees more proactive and adaptable. “Resilience,” Dekker states, “is the ability to bounce back. To accommodate change and to absorb disruptions without catastrophic failure.”

(Find out Why Creating a Safety Culture Is Better Than Relying on Compliance.)

This new approach to safety not only rejects bureaucratic oversimplification – it also challenges a long-held philosophy that suggests that minor accidents predict major ones. Dekker contends that too much emphasis on near misses means that not enough attention is given to critical issues, and that front-line workers are not empowered to use their ethics, experience, and abilities to do things right.

Organizations looking to excel at safety should never take past success as a guarantee for future safety. Past results are no reason to be confident that adaptive strategies will keep on working. Employers should also encourage discussions around risk, and encourage different and fresh perspectives.

Erik Hollnagel: Work as Imagined vs. Work as Done

Erik Hollnagel, Senior Professor of Patient Safety at Jönköping University, also has changes to make to today’s safety culture that work in parallel with Mr. Dekker's proposals. He defines the current safety culture as Safety-I, in which a system is safe when as few things as possible go wrong, where “what went wrong” is based on evidence from random snapshots of failed system states.

According to Mr. Hollnagel and his “Resilience Engineering” school of thought, safety should be viewed differently, with an emphasis on things that go well. This is Safety-II, which is based on a systematic understanding of how performance succeeds, rather than on how it fails. Under Safety-II, people adjust their work so that it matches the conditions and problems are not looked at in isolation.

What unites Mr. Dekker and Mr. Hollnagel's approaches is the idea that we the question of what caused an accident isn't answered by listing things that would have prevented it. Instead, we should identify more ways for the procedure to go well.

(See Are You a Safety Manager or a Safety Leader? for related reading.)

What Are Companies Doing?

Some companies have already taken steps to becoming more proactive when it comes to safety processes. Food and beverage manufacturer PepsiCo has aligned its Global Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) function behind a strategy that focuses on “zero harm to our people and the environment today,” along with the pursuit of “a positive impact culture for our future.”


This entails an evolution of the role of EHS professionals from technical experts to change agents, developing leadership and proactive management of their corporate standards and specific markers such as:

  • Establishing and meeting best practices
  • Rewarding site engagement
  • Switching from Lost Time Injury Rate (LTIR) to Recordable Injury Rate
  • Engagement of leadership (including non-EHS leadership)

Another food producer, Danone, has developed an innovative Danone Integral Approach, which includes:

  • An integrated safety and wellbeing approach, progressively incorporated with physical work
  • A holistic approach to presenting musculoskeletal disorders, chemical, and mental health risks
  • Greater focus on mental health issues as drivers of absenteeism
  • Combining safety-at-work with wellbeing-at-work

(Learn more in From Teflon to Coach: A Lesson in Effectiveness.)

So, Are We Doing Enough?

The question of whether we are doing enough in terms of ensuring safety at the workplace could be answered easily by saying “no.” So long as there are injuries, illnesses, fatalities, and damage at a facility, then not enough is being done. But the past two centuries have seen significant improvements in overall safety in many parts of the world. Improvements can come from social and consumer pressures, but also from advances in knowledge of the type that Mr. Dekker and Mr. Hollnagel embody.

The pursuit of workplace safety will is an ongoing one, but the shift toward the study of proactivity and the focus on “what’s right” in place of “what went wrong” will serve as strong tonic in the face of ever advancing bureaucracy and the perceptual wall that currently exists between the workers and those who write the rules for them.

Sidney Dekker and Erik Hollnagel will be presenting at the 2020 EHS Congress in April.


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Written by Steve Prentice

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Steve Prentice is a project manager and a specialist in productivity and technology in the workplace. Much of his work focuses on techniques for creating and maintaining safe and healthy working environments. He believes new educational technologies will go a long way in establishing policies and practice that support safe and balanced work, while blockchain tech will assist greatly in the process, and he assists companies in adopting these as new best practices. He is a published author of three self-help books, and is in high demand as a guest speaker and media commentator. His academic background is in organizational psychology and project management.

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