The health and safety world is changing and it’s impacting the boardroom

A ground swell has been building

The last two to three years has seen a ground swell of opinion build, which we believe can’t be ignored.  The way advanced nations have been managing work health and safety (WHS) for decades (by looking for and measuring what can go wrong) appears to have reached saturation point with respect to its growing usefulness.

It may have served us well for decades, but it’s no longer providing us with the insights and improvements we require, expect and need in order to improve health and safety in the more complex and ever changing world that we now live and work.  Too many people continue to die or are seriously injured at work despite the significant investment in WHS systems and management over the years.  The ground swell of opinion from leading thinkers is health and safety management needs to move from ensuring that ‘as few things as possible go wrong’ to ensuring that ‘as many things as possible go right’.[1]  This different and new way of thinking has been referred to as ‘Safety-II’ in a white paper published by the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation.[2]

What does it mean to say ‘ensure as many things as possible go right’?

To help explain the new way of thinking, we have provided some key themes.  It’s about making the management systems ‘real rather than ideal’.  People need to be seen as the answer, not a liability, since people are flexible and adaptive as opposed to systems being perfectly thought out and designed.  So ‘Safety-II’ is all about the system’s ability to succeed under varying conditions, so that the number of intended and acceptable outcomes (everyday activities) is as high as possible… that is: understanding of why things go right, which means an understanding of everyday activities’.[3]

Changing the Australian mindset

But looking for how things go right is inconsistent with the current and traditional focus on the failures in our systems and therefore, the movement has struggled to receive support from management and executives who have relied on the traditional approach of management and boards which is focused primarily on risk and stopping things going wrong.  Why does this matter?  It creates a problem since we cannot guarantee things go right by measuring and monitoring only what goes wrong.  We need to know, understand and measure how they go right.  And the boardroom is key to unlocking this mindset.

Courage in the boardroom

Concurrent with this different way of thinking for health and safety at work, we have also noticed a movement with courage building in the boardroom.  Partnering with more than 50 of Australia’s most senior and experienced company directors through a series of workshops, Deloitte has published seven key themes that will drive the big winners in this world of uncertainty.  The report identified that ‘…there were strong views that effective Directors and board must move beyond just working through the simple and compliance-based risks and create the space necessary to deal with more complex, strategic decisions’.[4]

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water

It’s not suggested organisations throw away their WHS management systems they have carefully designed and invested in over the last few decades, although we expect further simplification of some systems is likely.  Rather, Safety II is a complimentary way of thinking, measuring and managing health and safety with some new practices and which we believe will bring about improvements we have not witnessed in decades.

A WHS management system needs to allocate some time, costs and resources to look at what goes right in their operations, particularly with respect to medium or higher risk operations, learn from them and invest wisely, in our people.

Get in touch with us

We’d like to hear your thoughts on this blog, particularly those organisation and professionals who have commenced their ‘Safety II’ journey and are looking for and measuring what and how things go right.

Tony Morris, Partner, Risk Advisory
Jane Magree, Partner, Risk Advisory
Sam Jones, Partner, Risk Advisory
John Xerri, Partner, Risk Advisory

[1] Page 3, executive summary, White Paper, ‘From Safety-I to Safety II: White Paper’ – European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation
[2] From Safety-I to Safety-II: A White Paper
[3] Page 17, White Paper, ‘From Safety-I to Safety II: White Paper’ – European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation
[4] Deloitte publication: Board Effectiveness – courage in the boardroom: Winning in uncertain times

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