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The Foundations of Safety

After many years of working in the safety field, I’ve found that the foundational concepts in safety have morphed and become misrepresented. Safety is no longer defined by what it is, it’s being defined by what we want to avoid. It’s now being described as an
outcome, not something we do.

While running a workshop during the implementation of safety programs in the early 2000’s, I observed safety being spoken about as the ‘absence of harm’ or as an outcome of something. People defined safety as ‘Zero harm, Injury Free or Zero Incidents’.

To me, Safety being spoken about this way was confusing, I understood safety to be about managing risk, or reducing exposure to hazards. It was ‘the way we did things’

A mentor of mine, Jim Spiegner said, “The absence of injury does not mean the presence of safety.”

I wanted to test my observations, so from that day forward I asked people I met, “How do you define safety? What is safety?” Some learnings I got from these questions were:

  1. Most people had never thought about the definition of safety. They found the question hard to answer.
  2.  After considering the question for some time, the common response was ‘Zero Harm, Injury Free, Incident Free, Zero Incidents or Going Home Safely’.
  3. Few people gave me an answer about managing risks or reducing exposure to hazards.


Because, this was an informal study, tracking every response and considering all the variables of background, profession and experience, I couldn’t really make an absolute statement about the problem. However this did shape my opinion around the current state of safety.

 Considering that I’ve asked this question to over a thousand people in the last 15 years, and less than 100 people have answered ‘managing risks’, I’ve reached the view that 90 percent or more of people had a definition of safety based purely on outcomes.

 What problems does this view create?

In an organisation, the safety focus of a Leader can change the longer the organisation goes without harm. The level of curiosity in leaders starts to reduce and safety improvements become less important. Why should they do more, spend more or invest more time, if they are having longer periods of ‘Zero Harm’?

Organisations typically focus more on lagging indicators (Injuries and Incidents) to monitor their safety performance. They use things like ‘injury free days’ to promote positive safety performance. These measures both reinforce the fact that safety is about outcomes, and without harm, we are doing things safely.

 When individuals learn that safety is about the absence of harm, then as they perform their work without harm, they build a sense of complacency around how the work is being done.

Safety Foundations

A common statement I hear is “I have always done it this way and nothing bad has happened”. What this tells me is the person is basing their level of being safe on the absence of harm from previously doing the work.

Image 1 represents how risk can increase over time as people feel things are safe because they judge their level of safety based on the absence of harm.

Zero Harm, Injury Free, and Incident Free have become the values that Leaders hold around safety. They value the safety and wellbeing of people and don’t want anyone to be harmed. This is different to what safety is.

 SAFETY is about controlling and reducing exposure to hazards.

BEING SAFE is to control your exposure to hazards. As I gained a better understanding of the difference between outcomes and the definition of safety, I was able to formulate what safety is and how to focus on its foundational concepts.

If Safety is controlling exposure to hazards, what does that look like? Exposure is created when hazards and people come together

Image 2 represents safety as a formula, i.e. a change in exposure is a result of how hazards are managed and how people interact with hazards. The way occurs determines if exposure goes up or down.

Image 3 represents a simple assessment of how work is done; is it being done with exposure controlled, exposure reduced or exposure uncontrolled?

 In all quadrants, work can be performed with or without harm. Harm is more likely when exposure is uncontrolled. Harm is very unlikely when exposure is controlled. This view obviously assumes that the hazards cannot be eliminated.

 So, how do you define safety?

What impact is your definition having on the perceptions of working safely for your organisation and your team.