Safety in the workplace is a global endeavor that is entirely deserving of scientific study. But haven’t we already achieved that? Isn’t that what occupation health and safety statutes, standards, procedures, and codes already do? Or is it time for something better, something more up to date, something more proactive?

Science in general focuses on research, testing, and discovery. It's a never-ending pursuit. Common procedures, testability, and established standards make it possible for experts and researchers who have never met to continue to learn and share their scientific discoveries with the public.

So it is with safety: diversity and variations among industries and countries, along with an increasing pace of change, demand that the study of safety science be ongoing, clearly defined, with methods and metrics that can be tested by others. This results in established rules and boundaries that are accessible to people and industries across the entire spectrum of human activity.

But there's more to the story. It’s time for a shift in the mindset. There is now a strong case for safety science to help do safety differently. Professor Sidney Dekker, who will be the plenary keynote speaker at the 2020 EHS Congress in Berlin, describes how safety improvements across industries have flatlined in recent decades, largely due to increased compliance and paperwork requirements.

His approach takes safety science in a new direction by avoiding telling people what to do, and instead asking them what they need to be successful. It becomes a study not just of “what went wrong,” but a humanistic approach that ensures we learn and deploy more proactive safety measures.

(Learn more in Human Error and Safety: Are We Doing Enough?)

These attitudes fall in line with the best that modern workplace scenarios now offer in general, not just in relation to safety, including:

  • More opportunity for communication
  • More collaboration
  • Better use of video
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Virtual reality and augmented reality technologies
  • Elimination of silos
  • Increased flexibility between work and home
  • Greater empowerment of individual workers in terms of their activities
  • Providing feedback for continuous improvement and quality

Safety science, then, becomes a method for establishing a school of study and communicating results that can be applied to workplaces in a consistent and testable manner.

(Learn about 4 Ways Mobile Technology Keeps Employees Safer.)

Practical Applications in the Workplace

Given that workplaces can differ substantially from each other in myriad ways, the practical applications of safety science focus a great deal on concepts and procedures that can be tailored to individual situations in a consistent, repeatable, and recordable fashion. In other words, pairing the how with the why.

An intelligent line of pushback on the concepts proposed by Dr. Dekker (or by other safety experts) is that embracing a new approach to safety is just another worldview, one of many that circulate at any one time. As Rhona Flin points out, we have already seen many examples of safety consciousness and safety culture, culminating in some infamous and tragic historical milestones such as BP’s Deepwater Horizon and Chernobyl.

(See Lessons from 3 of the Worst Workplace Disasters for related reading.)

However, when proactive practices are shaped into a science, we stand a greater chance of seeing truly practical approaches that transcend the subjectivity of a worldview and become standardized and universally acceptable.

In an era where companies often occupy places in a global supply chain as opposed to staying exclusively local, a shared collection of proactive safety studies and policies has a much greater chance of taking root across workplaces worldwide. In a way, this can be seen as a historical echo of the adoption of a common timekeeping system in the mid-nineteenth century when railroads converted economies from local to national. In this case, it's high-bandwidth internet that brings us here.

There will be safety issues in every workplace. Some are age-old, others very new. Adopting high-visibility apparel on jobsites in the last two decades of the twentieth century might be considered one of the proactive safety measures of its time. Workplace training in active shooter drills might be seen as the same for the beginning of this century.

But it is important to distinguish between specific procedures, such as the steps required to correctly handle a dangerous substance, and overall proactive humanistic approaches to “doing safety differently.” Both have their place within the scientific study of science.

Because there are already so many differing worldviews, and because these are often paired with individual countries' differing political attitudes toward safety regulation, the case for a revitalized safety science is strong and only getting stronger.