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Safety First? You may want to re-consider!

Or why Safety First may undermine your safety efforts

” Safety First” has become a popular punch line in a steadily increasing number of businesses. While it undoubtedly points towards an increased commitment to safety in my experience it simultaneously has shown unfortunate tendencies to create resistance, misunderstandings and eventually loss of leadership credibility.

Why is that? From my perspective and experience as safety professional two main contributors repeatedly emerge.

1st: No organisation exists only to be safe.

2nd: Neither Leadership nor workforce have sufficiently explored the deeper meaning of the term Safety and the resulting implications of its sloganisation.

Regarding the 1st:

To quote an airline captain. “The only way to keep my passengers a 100% safe is by keeping the aircraft empty on the ground”. This statement neatly encompasses the understanding that safety never is the primary objective of any business. Production & trading of goods and services are more likely candidates here.

But doesn´t Safety First mean we should get rid of risks that may hurt people or damage our assets? At least this is often the expectation which is raised from a too superficial introduction of the concept. This is subsequently the reason why people at the sharp end may become either overwhelmed by the perceived demand or disappointed about the hollow promise that does not match their operational reality of managing risk.

When Safety First further is confused with an illusion of a near future of being incident free, things can easily turn sour as incidents and accidents stubbornly continue to occur.

I have witnessed how at management level a growing impatience and irritation may arise, since the declared incident free future fails to manifest itself according to expectations. Vertical relationships in the organisation deteriorate as management may attribute the lack of success to the fact that “someone is not getting the message here”. At worst the search for these “bad apples” creates a new era of mutual lack of trust.

At the sharp end people may start to dissociate from corporate safety gospel as the perceived gap with their operational reality only seems to grow. Left with little guidance on how to enact the expected commitment apart from holding handrails a growing nervous unease emerges as management expresses their dissatisfaction with current performance. Often, the perception that bad news is not welcomed leads to under-reporting. This in turn may be misinterpreted as actual progress at management level. A vicious cycle has replaced the well-intended initiative.

Regarding the 2nd:

What is Safety?

This question may at first come as a surprise. After all, we have casually handed the term around amongst each other for decades and consequentially assume that everybody by now knows what it means. In my Safety Leadership trainings this topic is the primary entry point to everything that follows. In a five-minute shout out, we easily fill an entire flip chart with connotations connected to this label. These can in principle be boiled down to a handful of generic categories. In order not to over complicate things only one of these categories will be applied here, as it is the most helpful in de-coding “Safety First”.

The perspective is the traditional one that sees Safety as an absence of negative events. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has produced an official definition of Safety, which captures this very well.

According to ICAO the definition of Safety is the “freedom from unacceptable risk”.

What this definition makes clearly visible is that Safety is not an absolute, but rather an effort to manage risk to an acceptable level. It also has a built-in flexibility, since what constitutes acceptable risk never remains stable. On the contrary risk is explored, understood and re-negotiated in competition with primary goals almost on a daily basis in every organisation.

Without this fundamental understanding the term “Safety First” can lead to all of the counterproductive responses described earlier. Even with this understanding in place it creates challenging situations when competing goals of safety, quality, production goals, cost- and time- pressure have to be traded off against each other. But at least then it may have become an actual enabler to have these difficult discussions.

Given that the term “Safety First” has enjoyed widespread popularity we might be hesitant to abandon it completely out of concern that we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater in the process.

But then what should we do? A fair question I have been met with at managemtn level at occasions where the status quo was challenged. Is there a meaningful substitute available to us? I actually believe there is. And it did not come from the expert rows. Rather it was conceived by one of the managers participating in one of my Safety Leadership workshops. A fresh perspective, that to my knowledge has not been launched anywhere within the safety profession yet.

Following our discussions around the meaning of Safety the manager proposed the following: “Would it not be more correct and honest if we changed the term to -Consider Safety First- “

That simple, yet so effectful the addition of the one word “Consider” completely rearranges the meaning of the term, in line with what every robust risk-management process is striving to achieve. Ranging from initial risk assessments to the final toolbox talk before work I commenced – Consider Safety First!

Further, it has the enabling potential to democratise the discussions about risk and make everyone an active participant by contributing their considerations which in turn may improve relationships and trust across hierarchical boundaries.

An idea worth considering.

What do you think?


Marcian Tessin

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