What Is Safety Differently? An Interview with Ron Gantt

If you’ve been paying attention to the safety and health world lately, you may know about “Safety Differently.”

For example, there’s a safety differently website devoted to the topic. In addition, the plenary topic at the recent ASSE Safety 2017 conference contrasted behavior-based safety with human and organizational performance, which is very similar to (or arguably the same as) safety differently. This was probably the most discussed session at the ASSE conference. And, the May issue of the ASSE’s Professional Safety magazine featured an in-depth, peer-reviewed article about Safety Differently by Ron Gantt, and that article created a storm of back-and-forth letters to the editor and writer in the later June issue.

We’ve been following Ron Gantt and enjoying his writings at LinkedIn and elsewhere for some years now, and are very intrigued by the Safety Differently concepts. And that’s why we caught him presenting on the topic at the previously mentioned ASSE Safety 2017. We enjoyed his presentation very much, and asked if he’d be willing to tell us more about Safety Differently here at our blog. And we’re happy to say he agreed!

So let’s leave the introduction and get right to our interview with Ron Gantt about Safety Differently, below.

What Is Safety Differently?

Let’s get right to the questions we asked Mr. Gantt about Safety Differently and, more importantly, to his answers.

What Is Safety Differently and How Is It Different than “Normal” Safety?

Safety Differently is the name given to a movement within safety to change the perspective of organizations in three key areas – how safety is defined, the role of people, and the focus of the organization.

Traditional or “normal” safety management tends to view these three areas in this way:

  1. Safety is defined as an absence of negatives (e.g., accidents, unacceptable risk, unsafe acts, etc.)
  2. People are a problem that must be controlled
  3. The organization focuses on safety as a bureaucratic accountability to those above us hierarchically

By contrast, Safety Differently views these three key areas this way:

  1. Safety is defined by the presence of positives, such as a capacity to be successful in varying conditions
  2. People are the solution
  3. The organization focuses on safety as an ethical responsibility to those who do the organization’s messy, risky work

This change in perspective primarily changes the way we see organizations, workers, the problems we face, and the potential solutions available to us. So, in that way, Safety Differently is first a change in perspective. This means that adopting a Safety Differently approach doesn’t mean we stop doing all the things that have been working for us in the past. However, it does mean that we may do these things in a different way and with different goals. There are also new practices implied in the above tenets as well.

What’s Wrong With “Normal” Safety and Why Is Safety Differently Better?

“Normal” or traditional approaches to safety are limited in a number of key areas. First, they are too focused on what we don’t want. Traditional safety management is about identifying hazards, risks, unsafe conditions, unsafe acts, etc. We know what these are because we have looked at accidents and identified that had these things been eliminated or sufficiently controlled then the accident would not have happened. The implication is that if we eliminate those things that make us “unsafe” (i.e., that cause accidents), then we must be “safe,” by default.

This perspective, though, has left safety professionals with a skewed perspective on organizational life and what it takes to get work done. It’s like coaching a competitive swimmer so they only know how to not drown. Our recommendations to that swimmer (e.g., wear a life vest, stay near the edge of the pool) will conflict with the overall goals of the swimmer. In the same way, by focusing only on what we don’t want, the safety profession has contributed to, and in some cases created the very conflict we get so frustrated in dealing with – production versus safety. We’ve made it harder for organizations to achieve their mission. No wonder so many organizations marginalize the safety department and don’t see safety as “value added.”

As Daniel Hummerdal says, failures occur when resources are insufficient to meet demands. This is a normal part of organizational life that traditional safety management has no remedy for, nor does it even have a clear understanding of. By contrast, Safety Differently seeks to work with the organization to enable it to achieve its goals. By finding ways to help workers get work done we not only reduce the likelihood of error, but we also build trust, engagement, productivity, and resilience.

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Can You Give Us Some Examples of Safety Differently in Action?

Sure! One organization I work with has realized that the best way to solve the problems they face is to trust their workers and increase collaboration. So they developed a monthly meeting that they call their SMART Team (Sharing Minds, Attitudes, Resources, and Technology). Essentially anyone in the facility can come to the meeting and they discuss all sorts of topics, from new proposed procedures, to problems engineers are having with a design, to ideas on how to improve certain tasks. The topics include traditional safety topics (e.g., PPE, training), but also include operational aspects as well. The meetings aren’t very structured, which makes them a bit messy, but the end result is a strong communication channel within the organization and the ability to come up with innovative solutions to problems that they would not have come up with others. Not only has this facility been named one of the best places to work for in their area for two years in a row, they also have had record-breaking reliability and accident records in their line of business. A big part of that was seeing their people as the solution and using things like the SMART Team.

In another organization we’re working with, they wanted to implement a new process to investigate accidents. The process they chose is similar to one that Todd Conklin uses, called a Learning Team (although the organization calls it something different in this case). This process includes employees in the investigation and is focused not on finding the “root cause” of an incident and “corrective actions,” but rather in understanding how normal work happens and identifying ways to improve those work processes. They found that when you merely have the workers describe the normal things they do every day, the accident that happened seems almost like an inevitable outcome given the system that workers had to work in. Changing that system by improving the work processes not only makes failure not inevitable, but also makes work execution easier.

I’ve Seen a Lot of People Who Get Confused by Safety Differently and/or Resist It. What Are Some Common Confusions People Have with Safety Differently and How Do You Try to Ease Those?

Some people see this as a new form of Behavior-Based Safety (BBS) or have tried to combine Safety Differently with BBS. However, these two interventions are distinctly different.

BBS is based on the idea that the best way to get the safety outcomes we want is to eliminate “unsafe behaviors” through reinforcement and punishment. Essentially, people are the problem and they need to be fixed.

Safety Differently rejects this idea. People don’t typically fail because they are flawed, but because of gaps between resources and demands. Adjusting this relationship is the best way to improve safety and operational performance.

Following up on the Previous Question, What Are Some Common Points of Straight-Up Resistance to Safety Differently and How Do You Try to Address Those?

There are three common areas of resistance.

First, some people point out that much of what Safety Differently recommends is not new. There are aspects of the tenets of Safety Differently in management theory, quality management, and even in some safety management theory going back decades. I think though that people are conflating “differently” with “new.” Although I do think there’s aspects of Safety Differently that are unique, much of it is based on a solid historical base of research and practice. The problem is that none of this is found in any coherent way in safety management textbooks, the approach regulatory agencies take to safety management, or in how most organizations manage safety. Hence the call for a ‘different’ approach.

Second, some say that we don’t need anything different, but that we just need to do traditional safety better or more fully. The idea is that if only organizations listened to what safety professionals recommended then everything would be OK and a different approach is unnecessary. To that I say, we’ve been trying traditional safety management approaches for almost a century. For the last two decades the results we’ve gotten have been uninspiring. Who’s to say that trying harder will change any of this? We also have research that shows that many traditional approaches have unintended consequences that may actually contribute to accidents. A new perspective is needed.

Finally, there’s others who say that they will not accept any new approach until they get a solid evidence base that shows it is better than the existing approaches. To that I say, you’re right! It is crucial that in safety we demand more evidence for what we do. Although Safety Differently is based on research in a number of scientific fields, such as social science, management science, and human factors, the evidence base for the approach is still in the early phases. However, this makes it no worse (and in many cases better off) than anything else that safety professionals do. There is very little evidence backing up traditional safety management approaches, so if we apply a critical perspective we should be consistent and apply it to all approaches. If we were to adopt such an approach Safety Differently would do just fine versus other approaches, in my opinion.

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What Resources Would You Recommend to Someone Who Wanted to Learn More About Safety Differently?

There’s a lot of great perspectives on the SafetyDifferently.com site. I’d also recommend checking out the works of Sidney Dekker and Erik Hollnagel to start to dive deeper into ideas.

What Would You Recommend to Someone Who Wanted to Begin to Implement Safety Differently?

It’s often best to start off by finding ways to understand how work actually happens in the organization. Get out and start talking to the workers and observe work in action. Rather than looking for violations and hazards, find out what the workers have to do to get work done and how they are doing it. What tools do they need? What skills and personnel are necessary? How much time does it take? And how is the organization providing these things? Often you’ll find workers innovating ways to deal with an imperfect system. Find ways to improve the system so that it makes it easier for the work to get done (make tools easier to get, give workers more time, etc.).

Once you do that you realize how much you don’t really know about how work gets done and how much good you can do with this approach.

Conclusion: An Introduction to Safety Differently

Thanks very much to Ron Gantt for introducing us to Safety Differently in this interview. Watch our blog for two additional articles on featuring Mr. Gantt discussing Safety Differently, once on Safety Differently and safety training and a second time on Safety Differently and Incident Investigations.

And here’s a little more information about Mr. Gantt:

Ron Gantt is a Safety, Human Factors, and Operational Resilience Professional who works with SCM Safety (and VP). Ron is also the acting editor at SafetyDifferently.com, and he’s an active contributor on safety issues at LinkedIn as well.  He has a Master of Engineering Degree in Safety Engineering and Management, as well as undergraduate degrees in Occupational Safety and Health and Psychology. In addition to being named as a Rising Star in Safety by the National Safety Council in 2013, Ron also is a Certified Safety Professional and holds many other certifications and licenses in safety, health, and emergency management. 

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Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto is an Instructional Designer and the Senior Learning & Development Specialist at Convergence Training. Jeff has worked in education/training for more than twenty years and in safety training for more than ten. You can follow Jeff at LinkedIn as well.

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