Is Safety Differently Really Any Different than Safety? An Interview with Ron Gantt

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In a purely non-scientific, sticking-my-finger-into-the-wind kind of way, it seems to me there’s been more discussion of Safety 2, Human and Organizational Performance (HOP), and Safety Differently lately.

Note: I tend to lump these all together because they have a lot in common and I’ll be using the term Safety Differently for the rest of this article.

Maybe you’ve noticed that same increase in chatter about and interest in Safety Differently yourself lately.

Not so long ago, I “listened in” on a thoughtful and interesting discussion on LinkedIn in which people were discussing Safety Differently. One of the primary issues in the discussion was whether or not Safety Differently was really any different that “traditional” safety.

Ron Gantt, as he often does, entered the fray and presented a comprehensive, eloquent answer in which he suggested that Safety Differently really is different than traditional safety. (I should also note that many people who contributed to this discussion were very thoughtful–it was one of those times when you realized that a social media network like LinkedIn really can be a great community where passionate, informed professionals exchange views and opinions in a productive, civil, respectful manner.)

I was pretty impressed, and I asked Ron if we could do an interview in which he presents his views on Safety Differently. Ron was kind enough to agree, as he has in the past as well, and we’re very grateful to him for his contributions below. For those of you not familiar with Ron, check out the website that he edits and keep an eye out for him at safety and similar conferences–he’s an engaging and persuasive speaker. You can also find additional information about Ron at the bottom of this article.

And now, let’s get to talking to Ron about Safety Differently.

Defining Safety Differently

Let’s start by learning a few general things about safety differently and then move on to some tougher questions as we go.

Is Safety Different Really Different? Does It Have any Unique Benefits?

Convergence Training: You’re probably aware that while a lot of people think Safety Differently is revolutionary, important, and in general the cat’s pajamas, a lot of others think it’s traditional safety by a new name and with a lot of hype. Do you understand the perspective of those who think there’s nothing different about Safety Differently and what would you say to them in general terms?

Ron Gantt: Being involved in the safety differently movement for some time now, I have interacted with a lot of people who are skeptical about its benefits. One of the more common complaints I hear is something along the lines of “this isn’t new, we have been doing safety differently for decades” or “safety differently isn’t different from what we’re already doing.” These are actually understandable responses, and, in some sense, these critics are correct. From some perspectives safety differently is neither new, nor different. Let me explain.

First, regarding the newness of safety differently, it is worth pointing out that it is called “safety differently,” not “safety new.” This is because aspects of the ideas that provide the foundation of safety differently have deep roots in different disciplines and professions. One could argue that some researchers have been advocating for aspects of safety differently for over a century. In some respects, I feel like this is actually evidence that safety differently is indeed valid. Given the claims that safety differently makes about people and how they interact in organizations, it would be odd if people haven’t thought of some of these ideas already. So I feel very comfortable with the idea that safety differently has deep roots in social and safety sciences that we can point to.

Of course, this begs the next point – what’s so different about safety differently? After all, if it’s not new, then that must mean people have been doing it already. And I do believe that this is the case. You can find organizations that have been practicing some or perhaps even all of what safety differently recommends for decades. The point of the differently in safety differently is not to say that no organization in history has ever adopted these ideas. Rather, it is a statement that what safety differently recommends is different than what people traditionally see as normal safety practices.

3 Specific Ways That Safety Differently Really Is Different

Convergence Training: What are a few key ways that you believe Safety Differently really is different than traditional safety?

Ron Gantt: To understand this, let’s look at the key principles of Safety Differently:

  1. Safety is defined as the presence of positives, such as the capacity to be successful in varying conditions (as opposed to the absence of negatives)
  2. People are the solution (as opposed to the problem to control)
  3. Safety is an ethical responsibility to those who do the organization’s risky work (as opposed to safety being a bureaucratic accountability to those up the hierarchy)

Safety Differently Principle One: Safety Is Defined as a Positive

Convergence Training: Can you tell us more about the way Safety Differently defines safety?

Ron Gantt:  To the first principle, there is no definition of safety that I’m aware of that is not inherently tied to the absence of negatives (e.g., accidents, incidents, unacceptable risk, or unsafe acts/human error). This isn’t to say that there are none, but all organizations operate with the idea that safety is about preventing accidents.

That’s a laudable goal, but, practitioners of Safety Differently argue that in making this the sole goal we misunderstand the causes of failure and success because we assume that if we eliminate all negatives then we will only be left with what we want (i.e., success). This is not necessarily true because of how people adapt to deal with complexity, which leads to both success and failure.

Eliminating the causes of failure will also eliminate the causes of success. Further, this definition of safety also creates conflict in the organization that didn’t previously exist in the form of safety and production trade-offs. Rather than seeing safety as a pull on the organization, Safety Differently practitioners see safety as an enabler.

I have yet to see an organization that actively defines safety in this way and uses this definition in practice in a consistent way.

Safety Differently Principle Two: People Are the Solution for Safety

Convergence Training: What about how Safety Differently thinks of people, and more specifically, workers?

Ron Gantt: To the second principle, seeing people as the solution, this one is the most susceptible to the “not different” criticism in my opinion.

There are organizations that have been utilizing people-oriented, collaborative approaches for decades. There is also a movement in some organizations toward creating boss-less work environments, teams of teams, etc., which have a lot of overlap with the idea that people are the solution.

However, I have yet to see any organization take these ideas and apply them to safety in a systematic way. When it comes to safety, often organizations get the idea that asking workers about procedures is all it takes to make people the solution. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a good thing. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what’s possible when organizations move away from top-down, Tayloristic approaches to safety management. In my experience though, organizations are just beginning to test the waters on this principle, although some of the early stories we are seeing on this are quite exciting.

Safety Differently Principle Three: Safety Is an Ethical Responsibility

Convergence Training: What can you tell us about that third principle, the notion that safety is an ethical responsibility to the worker doing risky work for the organization?

Ron Gantt: To the third principle, this is the one I find people have the hardest time understanding. People think that we’re saying that safety professionals should be more ethical. That’s not what this principle is about.

It is true that most safety professionals want safety to be an ethical responsibility, but their focus is on those above them (e.g., corporate, regulators) rather than those below them (e.g., workers). As an example, safety professionals are far more interested in what the regulator believes is ‘safe’ than what workers believe is ‘safe.’

There are reasons for this to be sure, but the point is that this is wrong and needs to change. Safety should be oriented toward supporting workers, not toward meeting bureaucratic and regulatory requirements. We should be asking workers what they need instead of asking them why they aren’t following our rules. To me, this is very different than how safety is commonly practiced. Go to a safety conference and you see tools and consultants all designed to help you get workers to follow your rules and procedures, to enforce constraints on how they do work. You really don’t see much about enabling workers to get work done.

Final Words on the Difference of Safety Differently

Convergence Training: Any final thoughts to share for us?

Ron Gantt: To me, in sum, all of this is quite different than how safety is commonly practiced across industries. Again, there will be exceptions with organizations doing aspects of these things well. I wouldn’t even be surprised if there are some organizations doing all of the above. But if there are such organizations they are out of line with the dominant practices and assumptions of safety today. I think this needs to change and this is why I feel comfortable making the blanket statement that organizations need to start doing safety differently.

Conclusion: Safety Differently–What Do You Think?

Once again, we’d like to thank Ron Gantt for sharing his time, knowledge, and expertise, and we’d like to remind you to try to catch Ron if he’s speaking at any conferences near you.

If you’d like additional information on Safety Differently and/or Human and Organizational Performance (HOP), please check the following articles:

Please leave your comments, thoughts, and questions about Safety Differently below. And since you made it way down here to the bottom, feel free to download our free Online Safety Training Buyer’s Guide Checklist, too.

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Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto is an Instructional Designer and the Senior Learning & Development Specialist at Convergence Training. He's worked in training/learning & development for 25 years, in safety and safety training for more than 10, is an OSHA Authorized Outreach Trainer for General Industry OSHA 10 and 30, has completed a General Industry Safety and Health Specialist Certificate from the University of Washington/Pacific Northwest OSHA Education Center and an Instructional Design certification from the Association of Talent Development (ATD), and is a member of the committee creating the upcoming ANSI/ASSP Z490.2 national standard on online environmental, health, and safety training. Jeff frequently writes for magazines related to safety, safety training, and training and frequently speaks at conferences on the same issues, including the Washington Governor's Safety and Health Conference, the Oregon Governor's Occupational Safety and Health Conference, the Wisconsin Safety Conference, the MSHA Training Resources Applied to Mining (TRAM) Conference, and others.

8 thoughts on “Is Safety Differently Really Any Different than Safety? An Interview with Ron Gantt

  1. Jeffrey, Ron…this was informative. A positive discussion on ideas to improve safety is always a good thing, and this was helpful. More and more I get the impression that safety is a bit like choosing where to go to church: There are many denominations yet with the same goal, and people will choose where they feel they need to attend that best fits them and their needs/desires. With safety, there are many philosophies, movements, ideas, etc…some may choose one, some may choose another. But all want the same thing.
    Again, good stuff, thanks,

  2. I have been through the traditional management style of health & safety for over 15 years in Ireland and nothing has really changed for the good. We have a lot of BBS and Zero harm programmes in operation, we even have a construction company that says it has Zero Risk, as Eric Hollangel said if you want a zero free workplace, then close the gates. I have been researching safety differently approach for the last year and I get it!!! I fully understand that methodologies of the approach because we have certainly plateau in Ireland on innovation. I have always thought that the workers are the key to all this, yet we are adamant that we need to tell the workers (at the sharp end) how to do their work, work we probably have not idea how it is really done or what issues the workers comes up against day in day out, that to me is missing the point. I firmly believe that safety in Ireland is orientated towards Works-As-Imagined and we miss the big picture. To me Safety differently is a breath of fresh air and the Kiss of life that is needed in the manner in which health & safety is practiced in Ireland. I would welcome a roadshow or conference on Safety Differently in Ireland. Great article Jeffery and Ron. I will continue the fight!!!!

  3. To me packaging Safety Differently as a new or unique way to approach safety really comes down to if the ends justifies the means… most of what it is is built on sound risk management practices including focusing on consultation with those doing the work rather than issueing blanket rules and instructions down from the Safety Ivory Towers… as mentioned in the article this is all turning the focus of H&S from regulatory compliance to business efficiency.
    My main concern is with the “marketing” of Safety Differently, as it does have the hallmarks of a fad – and if it is sold to / seen by senior business leaders as the next H&S Silver Bullet then the positive aspects that it could bring will potentially come crumbling down when the significant effort that is required to fully realise it is uncovered and the next new safety shiny comes along with its promises to “sort out safety simply”… and this is the innate problem with our species – we are programmed to figure out how to get as much reward for as little effort as we can, but most of the time we end up just fooling ourselves out of any actual value we could of created!

    1. Nice thoughts, Matt.

      I can’t quote Ron Gantt word-for-word here, but I know I’ve heard him say he wish SD wasn’t seen as quite so diametrically opposite of “traditional” safety and/or if it hadn’t been advanced in quite such an arguably confrontational way at times.

      1. It is a bit of a double edged sword isn’t it – with it being confrontational it gets more exposure but at the same time the conversations can end up focusing on the wrong point (whether it is new/different rather than how thinking like this can extend “safety”)

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