Safety differently: a 3-step approach to enabling safety for OHS professionals

Tuesday, 29 October, 2019 - 14:15
Industry news
National News

Safety has traditionally focused on preventing unwanted outcomes through constraining people and process, however, this approach can also result in a range of unintended and unhelpful side effects, according to a “safety differently” expert.

While ‘safety by constraint’ can produce some improvements, side effects can include reactive management, diminished performance, frontline disengagement, bureaucratic decision making and negative culture, said Marc McLaren, Chief Enabler at safety solutions consultancy Art of Work.

He explained that the “enabling safety” approach engages an organisation in understanding and addressing what helps and hinders work, resulting in enhanced safety performance and improved operational resilience.

“The focus shifts to boosting capacity and increasing the number of things going right,” said McLaren, who will be speaking at the AIHS NT Branch seminar on Thursday 7 November 2019.

Erik Hollnagel argues that variability, the gap between ‘work-as-intended’ and ‘work-as-done’ is inevitable, according to McLaren, who said greater attention should be given to supporting people to successfully adapt.

Sidney Dekker also stresses that in adapting we should also need to be considering where gradual ‘drift to failure’ may be present, and McLaren explained that enabling safety draws on three principles:

1. People are the solution to harness not the problem to control. Most of the time things go right because people successfully adapt and contribute. They also know what makes work difficult and have knowledge and ideas for positively resolving the conditions and constraints.

2. Safety is about positive outcomes rather than the absence of negative outcomes. Building positive capacity enables more things to succeed and facilitates engagement and wider performance improvements. Increased capacity supports people to successfully deal with variability.

3. Safety is an ethical responsibility rather than a bureaucratic activity. The focus shifts from solely meeting compliance requirements to considerations of what is required to better set people up for successful work, understanding system dependencies and resourcing needs to meet demands.

“Enabling safety draws on operational knowledge and frontline expertise to improve work practices,” said McLaren.

There are many enabling tools that support this process, such as learning teams, collective insights, working well, embedded discovery, work explorations and enabling critical risk controls.

At the core of these enabling tools is the involvement of people in the end-to-end work process of design, planning, resourcing, leading and delivery in defining what contributes to the success and the conditions and constraints that make work difficult, and importantly drawing on frontline expertise to generate measurable improvements, said McLaren.

“Learning teams draw together a cross-section of people to engage in a structured process of discovery, analysis and improvement,” he said.

“This method is being used by a number of organisations across the globe to learn from both success and failure.”

This has resulted in people being empowered and enabled to significantly improve health and safety, as well as overall work performance, he explained.

“The enabling safety approach requires leaders and OHS professionals to become more curious about ‘normal work’, the space where nothing has necessarily gone wrong,” said McLaren.

“This requires the temporary suspension of experience and expertise to genuinely engage with people doing the work to understand what is helping and hindering performance.”

There is also a need for broadening traditional investigation practices and placing a greater reliance on systems-based thinking and human-centred design principles.

Another key to developing an enabling safety skill-base is spending time learning about appreciative inquiry practices, building performance through leveraging success and resilience engineering, determining ways of increasing successful adaptation.

“Importantly, it is not about jettisoning WHS and risk management expertise – it is about an openness to extend the practitioners thinking and skills and to resist the urge to add enabling safety to your CV because you can state people are the solution to harness not a problem to control,” said McLaren.


McLaren will be presenting an introduction to enabling safety at the AIHS NT Branch Seminar on Thursday 7 November 2019 from 9am-5pm at the Vibe Hotel, 7 Kitchener Drive, Darwin. For more information please visit the seminar website, email or call (03) 8336 1995.