Tuesday, August 6, 2013

What is "Safety"?

The above sounds like a fundamental question. After all, how can we strive to achieve something that we don’t clearly define? But, in my experience, people often don’t consider what their definition of safety is when developing a safety program. This often leads to confused decision-making and hodge-podge safety management systems. We know that we need to meet regulatory requirements (such as OSHA in the US) and we know we want to prevent injuries and illnesses, but beyond that it’s a little fuzzy.

Now, the temptation is to say that the prevention of injuries and illnesses is safety. The problem with that is that if we define safety by what doesn’t happen it leads to some uncomfortable situations and predictable mistakes. For example, just because someone drove their vehicle from point A to point B, does that mean that they drove safely? Of course not! We’ve all seen people drive like idiots. Why? Because unsafe behaviors, unsafe conditions, unsafe systems don’t lead to incidents every time. If I drive without following the rules of the road, I won’t get into an accident all the time. I won’t even get into an accident most of the time, because people are actually pretty good at being safe (see last week’s blog).

The bottom line, is that you can’t define “safety” as the absence of accidents, incidents, injuries, illnesses, or anything like that. These negative events are certainly “caused” by things we control, but they are also “caused” by things we do not control (e.g. I can control how I drive but I cannot control how others drive).

So if we can’t measure safety by the absence of something, what can we measure it as? What is our ultimate goal? What is the definition of “safety”? A definition used by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) seems to make some sense to me: Safety is freedom from unacceptable risk. We all know that we can’t eliminate all risk in our lives. There’s a risk in nearly everything we do that some unforeseen negative thing will happen. Our job then is to determine if that risk is acceptable or not.

If we define safety as acceptable levels of risk we are no longer measuring what isn’t there, we are measuring what is there. This also implies that we are constantly assessing our risks due to changing circumstances and determining if the level is acceptable or not (“changing our risk model” as some safety professionals call it).

Now imagine if your organization, before implementing any new safety system determined what the acceptable level of risk for the organization is. What if people stopped asking what’s required by OSHA or some other agency and started looking for risks and determined whether they were acceptable or not, based on the organizational standard, and from there determined what controls were best to reduce the risk? On a strategic level, this brings cohesiveness to your programs and clarity to decision-making and job planning. All programs are aimed at the same goal – adequate risk reduction. Job planning is no longer about what has happened in the past (“we’ve done this job for years without an issue”), but about the level of risk today.

So, what’s your organization’s acceptable level of risk?


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  2. Good point Rishi. Contractor safety management is pivotal, especially when you consider that research suggests that high severity incidents that have significant potential for serious injury and fatalities occur at a higher rate during times when contractors are typically on-site. We'll have a blog on contractor safety in the future to discuss this issue further.