Traditionally, safety has been about the elimination of unwanted outcomes such as injuries, incidents, and illnesses. This goal of ensuring a state in which as few things as possible go wrong restricts organisations to two main avenues to improve safety: learning from what has gone wrong, and constraining performance as to ensure that unwanted deviations do not happen.

For example, that which has gone wrong is examined through accident investigations, and the probability for things to go wrong again is understood through risk assessments. To prevent such things from happening or recurring, organisations implement or improve barriers that separate people and processes from danger - barriers, procedures, margins, and other functions that will enable improved control and predictability of that which is dangerous. People, with their autonomy and capacity for creativity, are from this perspective primarily seen as a liability or a hazard.

While many organisations have seen their safety records improve while using this approach, they have also experienced that this approach becomes increasingly problematic the harder they try. It locks organisations into a reactive safety management mode, where future success is taken to come from preventing the deviations from the past. But even organisations that are ambitious in this approach still suffer fatalities and disasters. This approach also feeds an ever increasing need for control and compliance. As a consequence, organisations seeking to eliminate everything that goes wrong are likely to generate a negative culture around safety, and create solutions in which people are seen as a problem to control.

Starting in 2012, a number of organisations and thinkers have developed an approach to understand and manage ‘Safety differently’. Essentially, this approach deals with the following three issues:

  • The definition of safety

  • The role of people

  • The organisations of responsibility for safety

Safety is about enabling positive outcomes

Organisations need to manage safety differently. One of the central aspects of the safety differently movement, developed primarily in Australia since 2012, is that organisations shift their focus to enabling as many things as possible to go right. This goal not only changes the definition of safety, but also how safety is understood, assessed, communicated and practiced. While traditional safety is focussed on managing constraints and preventing deviations, the ‘safety differently’ perspective suggests that organisations should focus on understanding and addressing what helps and hinders performance.

'Safety differently’ thus requires an interest in how normal work occurs - how tools, resources and strategies enable people to achieve outcomes across varying conditions, and the conditions and constraints that make this difficult. From this perspective, organisations can learn and improve from any event/outcome, not just incidents and injuries. When the Safety differently lens is applied to incident investigations the goal is not to explain how people went wrong or what defences failed, but rather to understand how actions and decisions made sense, or how things normally go right, in order to understand how the capacity handle demands was limited.

People are the solution

Things go right because people adapt and adjust their performance to changes, inefficiencies, and surprises in the workplace. To enable more things to go right, organisations can invest in the capacity of people and processes to achieve desired outcomes. People, with their capacity to adapt and learn, are in this perspective a critical resource for organisations to harness in order to both understand how work gets done, but also to develop solutions to improve performance.

Everyday, people manage to get work done. More often than not this entails variations from procedures or how work was imagined to happen. Organisations that manage safety differently routinely engage with their people to understand the demands of normal work. They have some version of appreciative investigations in place - ways to learn from normal work. As they do this, they also tap into the frustrations and ideas that their employees have. Frontline employees have the experience and expertise to know where sensitivities, dependencies and good practices can be found. Then they allow these people to contribute with solutions that can improve how work happens.

Safety as an ethical responsibility

Accountability for safety is traditionally distributed into the various roles of employees. Safety has gradually become something that employees owe to the organisation - to fill out take five cards, to ensure work complies with legislation, to enact the values of safety culture programs etc. This way, safety has turned into something you do to look good to external parties with  (clients, regulators, competitors, your boss, etc). Put differently, safety has become a bureaucratic accountability up. However, using such external drivers for safety shifts ownership and the focus of safety towards serving those who are the recipients of the risk and troubles in the workplace.

To reverse this situation, organisations managing safety differently see safety as an ethical responsibility down. In other words, safety is a service that they provide to their employees. This shifts the role of, for example a safety management system to be around controlling what happens, to be about supporting people. This way, safety is restored to be about caring about people and enabling people to successfully tackle the risks they face in their workplace.

In practice, this view has led some organisations to completely revamp their induction programs. While these in the past was a lengthy session with lots of presentation slides to ensure that newcomers were aware of everything, they now start by asking the inductees about what they need to know, what they normally find difficult when they come to a new site, and otherwise try to seek to direction of their induction by building relations with the new people through knowledge. This also allows them to capture good ideas and practices from other sites.

Some organisations have also developed new safety metrics based on the ideas that safety is an ethical responsibility. Asking people “How likely (on a scale from 1-10) are you to recommend the way safety is managed on this site, to a friend or colleague?” fundamentally shifts how organisations try to find their direction for safety. While it’s not a matter of disregarding compliance, this measure drives organisations to what is right by their employees.

Safety differently - when safety is about doing good (rather than less bad)

To manage safety differently does not mean that organisations should do away with any traditional safety activity. Activities such as audits, incident investigations, risk assessment, implementations of safety control and inductions, still need to be done. However, ‘safety differently’ suggest that organisations can and should use a different lens when they go about such activities, and broaden their focus from prevention of negatives, to enabling good performance under a wider set of conditions.

Safety differently can be defined as a shift in the basic assumption we hold about what safety is, the role of people, and how responsibility for safety is organised. Shifting the definition from preventing negative outcomes to enabling positive outcomes drives organisations to pay closer attention to everyday performance. This way they are more likely to capture and address issues proactively, even before they become safety issues.

If organisations want their employees to be intelligent collaborators to safety, productivity and efficiency, well then they need to start approaching people as a resource to harness, rather than a problem to control.

To overcome the ‘Looking good index’ and ‘tick and flick’ disease that gradually has taken over the world of safety, safety needs to be considered an ethical responsibility down - an expression of care from the organisations to the people for whom it matters the most.

The different assumptions

Safety Differently

The system is not safe in itself

Accidents happen when resources are not enough to deal with the demands

Variability is inevitable

Only people can adapt, accommodate, absorb and respond

Success comes from peole being able to adapt successfully

How can people be supported to adapt successfully

Traditional Safety

The system is safe

Accidents happen because of unsafe acts/rare deviations from plan

Variability is a threat

People are a threat

Procedural compliance is mandatory

How can we change people?


Starting the transformation

Understand normal work

Do not wait for something bad to happen in order to learn and improve, but try to understand what actually happens when nothing out of the ordinary seems to take place. You can find out more about what helps and hinders performance by asking your employees some of the below suggested questions:

  • What day last month was work (performance) the best? What happened on that day?

  • Can you tell me about a time when your work was difficult?

  • What are you most dependent on to be successful in your work? What happens when that resource isn’t available in the way you need?

  • If you had $50,000 (or other sum) to make this a better place to work, how would you invest them?

Organisations that have implemented Safety differently practices have found ways to integrate such questions into various information gathering mechanisms. These can be focus groups, end of day debriefs, or during executive site visits. Following collection, the information is analysed and subsequently fed into various improvement programs. Also, some have developed measures of performance variability, for example measuring the ratio between planned and reactive work.

Dampen the sources of variability

Equipped with information about sensitivities, dependencies and frustrations you can invest in boosting the resources and methods to better match conditions

Examples of how organisations have dampened variability include:

  • Reorganise stores to have more frequently used material closer to the checkout area.

  • Improve lighting so people can see rocks, signage and other vehicles on the road

  • Have dedicated laydown areas and making work areas more predictable

  • Install rain/shade covers even out the effect of weather/temperature

  • Install a barcode scanner to keep track of tools

Increase the capacity to handle variability

Some challenges can not be eliminated. Heavy things need to be lifted, and tedious and repetitive tasks need to be carried out over and over again. However, organisations can invest in the capacity to deal with variability by:

  • Supporting the development of expertise and autonomy

  • Leaders and frontline employees co-generating solutions

  • Making clear what resources are available for people if they need help

  • Reducing unnecessary bureaucracy/increase clarity of purpose

Some organisations have invested in site improvement teams to increase local capacity. These teams consist of 5-8 front line employees who together with a senior manager (not their direct supervisor) develop ideas and solution that can improve their capacity to deliver. The ideas are analysed from a cost benefit perspective and implemented after approval.

Other organisations have started ‘decluttering initiatives’ asking their employees:

  • what is the most stupid thing you have to do around here?

  • what procedures don’t really support your work?

You may also want to read more of the literature that has informed the safety differently movement. Anything by professor Sidney Dekker, and professor Erik Hollnagel is a good starting point.  Or, you can attend a training session on safety differently, or learn how to do appreciative investigations. For more information, see