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If it smells like bullshit it probably is

I have been reading with interest the spate of recent posts, articles and comments on behaviour based safety vs safety differently, Safety 1 and 2, Dekker vs Heinrich, etc.. Which one is correct? Which one is best? Is there actually any difference between the two? Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? New view vs old view? Bad apples vs crazy bananas? etc. etc. These debates really amuse me because I consider myself sensible and balanced enough to rise above them, what with me being a Human Performance Consultant and Practitioner who advocates a "Business Differently" approach to all things 'performance improvement' and all that!

However, I have a number of clients who read these posts and who have started asking me deep, searching questions like "Who the hell are we supposed to believe?" "We just spent a bloody fortune on a BBS programme and now we're worried we've wasted our money?" or my favourite from a lovely client this week, who is very sharp and very experienced "Isn't all just a bit 'Emperor's New Clothes?" So, with that in mind, I thought I'd share the (probably limited!) value and benefit of my own experience.

I've been 'doing safety' on and off since 1992 (I know I don't look old enough but I did start when I was 5) and I feel very privileged to have learned my craft from some extremely talented and experienced people over the years, none of them particularly famous, none of them have written books about their theories or practices, but real muck and bullets type people from the 'old school' of health and safety where 'wearing hard hats was for sissy's' and 'Christ it's only a bloody scratch, what's your problem?' was probably their first step into safety many years before me!

I worked with three inspiring men on a 132kV cable installation project in 1992. A Draughtsman - Harry Shepherd, a Cable Supervisor - Alan Carter and his second in command David "Dai" Joseph, all long standing employees of the company; god I loved working with those men, they took care of me, taught me the ropes and kept me safe on my first ever 'foray' into the world of construction.

Harry and I were taking measurements of the cable route in a place called Ernesettle, in Plymouth, Devon where the route basically went through a river bed of a tributary to the Tamar River, "Ernesettle Creek", they've probably built houses on it now! The trench through the creek was probably 20ft deep and was steel shuttered and I remember thinking as we climbed down the 'bracing' into the trench, "Christ, this doesn't feel very safe, what if the tide comes in?!" Harry explained the emergency plan, which was "Work Fast"!

Once we'd taken our measurements we climbed out of the trench and sort of waded back to the bank through thick mud which was way over the top of my steel-toe-capped wellies which were filling fast; we both knew I was going over and thanks to the consistency of the mud it happened in slow motion but once down there was no way back up apart from to pull my feet out of my wellies, 'spread' my weight over the surface of the mud and kind of roll to a point where the ground was firmer and I could stand up again. For years after, Harry would remind me of the time when he turned back to see his willing but woeful 'apprentice' wallowing in the mud like a hippo with his beautiful welsh accent saying "and I laaaaaauuughed!"

Back at the portacabin I got one of the biggest bollockings of my life from Alan for treating a construction site like a playground and Harry got a beasting for being paralysed with laughter rather than worrying about the safety of a new junior staff member!

Alan, who had been involved in a very serious work-related accident many years before, made me promise there and then that if I was asked to do anything on the job that I didn't feel safe doing then I should always refuse first, ask questions later. Great lessons and happy days indeed!

I have many people like Harry, Alan and Dai to thank for my 'on-the-job' safety education, including people like John Henderson, Carl Fieldhouse, Terry Dutton-Wells, Tony Booth, Jimmy Blues, Stuart Morris, Terry Dowsett, Julia Stevenson, Mick Stirk, Doug Smart and others just like them - people who learned their trade the hard way, through experience of dealing with people, plant and processes in heavy industry in the real world where shit happens!

The first time I came across this 'new thing' called Behaviour-Based Safety (BBS) was in 1995. I was blown away! Over the years I had lost a number of colleagues in road traffic accidents on their way to or from work, indeed in 1990 I myself had been involved in a near fatal motorbike accident on my way to my place of work and spent many years recovering.

I had observed that people complied with rules at work because they had to but very few of them perceived that these rules were of any benefit to them, in fact they were normally seen as a hindrance to getting the job done right! Surely there was a flaw somewhere!

BBS introduced the concept of 'Hearts and Minds', we learned about Antecedents, Behaviours and Consequences, we capitalised on the altruistic nature of our workers in caring for one another and we showed them that it was ok to question a workmate about an unsafe practice or condition, because we care for each other.

BBS said safety was a choice for the worker, reporting things that were fundamentally wrong or unsafe was good practice because once the business had all this intelligence it would be able to do something about it so that our tasks and activities became intrinsically safe with work force ownership of the solution. What I loved was the fact that we started to care about our workers' opinions, we listened to their feedback, we involved them in the improvements and we started to think about their perception of safety outside of work and not just inside.

We shouted that Safety should be a value, not a set of rules! Who wouldn't want that sort of culture?

We saw the impact and we saw it quickly. Our near hit reports and minor injury events went through the roof, just as we'd been told they would. We had a workforce that not only wanted to share their problems but wanted to be a part of the solution. We formed peer groups, steering committees, trained champions and coaches and fundamentally changed the safety performance in our organisations.

Great news eh? Well no, not really.

The biggest issue that I experienced with BBS only became apparent about a year and a half into the programme roll out. We didn't have the resources to fix all the issues and our Bird's Triangle was telling us that we were seconds away from a fatality or major incident, thanks to this amazing reporting culture we had now created.

Our workers were now asking why the broken guard, the hole in the car park and the out of date hand tools weren't being sorted despite them raising them as near hits (or near misses depending on your particular bent).

Then the straw that broke the camel's back - Directors and Managers all over the place didn't achieve their bonuses because 'Safety Performance had deteriorated' based on the AFR or TRIR rate increases.

Now, if you want to screw up a perfectly good and theoretically sound programme always link it to the top table's bonus scheme. Suddenly the Boardroom is full of conversations about how crap the safety team must be and how can our workers be having more accidents, despite the thousands of pounds we invested in this bloody BBS programme? You see sometimes the truth is inconvenient!

So where did we go next to resolve this new problem? Yes - ZERO HARM! Let's stop all these accidents and near hits by telling our workers that we want zero harm, tell them to be more careful, mindful, vigilant and stop cocking it up.

We began to really embrace Heinrich's theory that paying attention to the low level indicators can prevent our incident severity from moving up that greasy triangle. I remember 'investigating' a near hit of a 'bolt in the road'. We all knew it was a piss-take but the rules said 'Investigate Everything' so we did, only to confirm our suspicion that in order to meet his 'quota' of near hits each week, one of our Scaffolders carried a bolt in his pocket and once a week, he placed it in the road and then reported it. Yeah thanks buddy, I owe you one!

Now, come closer and huddle around me if you can. This is a secret! The thing that some of you might not know, because the conversation only happens behind the closed safety office door, is that zero harm is bollocks. We all know it but we kid ourselves that management don't! But they do - because they say it too behind the management office closed door!

It's like a Mexican stand-off. Who will be the first to say Zero Harm is bullshit? The management can't say it because saying "This year we will injure 24 people and kill 2 - step forward if you would like to volunteer" is rather distasteful so anything other than zero is not going to help our share price!

The Safety team aren't going to say it because the management will think we're not up to the job and they'll sack us. If you listen carefully you can hear the people sing, singing the songs of angry men (and women) saying "Zero Harm is bullshit!" The only way you can have zero harm is if we stop telling you what actually goes on around here to get the job done.

And so it goes - we are back to square one with a much younger me, rolling around in the mud in Ernesettle Creek! You see, it was society, the corporate world and a boat load of 'specialists' selling quick fixes that tarnished the reputation of Behaviour Based Safety; the concept itself was not flawed, still isn't! but the way we 'twist' things to suit our paradigm is what determines whether our BBS programme fails or succeeds.

Enter Messrs Dekker, Conklin, Hollnagel, et al. and the latest concept - 'safety differently'. Except it's not that different at all; it's just the next step in the evolution of "Safety Incorporated".

Without the maturing affect of the BBS journey, which itself was frowned upon in it's early days, many organisations would probably think that these guys were witches and would promptly burn them at the stake! They are viewed as 'Blasphemers' by the BBS Illuminati and they occasionally lob a quick volley back over the fence to keep the score even.

I really believe that BBS had to happen (and probably has to continue happening) so that the lessons could be learned and the foundations laid for this next leg, safety 2, differently, pre-accident, etc., etc. Today we talk about black swan or outlier events, safety being a dynamic 'non event' (I don't actually know what that means either), or the absence of unsafe practices, etc., we espouse the benefits and virtues of 'Appreciative Inquiry' and there is a whole lot more jargon that people much more clever than me will continue to write books about.

Guess what? I am blown away by this stuff too!

I'm not exactly a safety differently purist because I know from my own experience that there is no 'one size fits all' when it comes to organisations - one size fits one! I also believe that simply dismissing many years of research and theory such as Reason's Swiss Cheese model and Heinrich's triangle is dangerous because sweating the small stuff IS important when it comes to marginal gains and used correctly without over-egging, the events triangle will give you important data about work as imagined vs work as done. It's just not the be all and end all and this new thinking is worth having a look at.

Much of it is stuff we've been doing under other headings for many years without the fancy new names. We have been using HAZIDs and HAZOPs for years to understand single point vulnerabilities in processing plants; Appreciative Inquiry is also a way of proactively identifying risks. Lean and Six Sigma introduced just-in-time and DMAIC cycles but I like my belts to hold up my trousers, and I remember being introduced to Plan Do Check Act when Moses was a boy. Thanks to Tony Boyle at Hastam, I use Event Causal Factor Analysis (ECFA) in the majority of my investigations as well as Functional Resonance Analysis Method (FRAM) but I'm also a TapRoot Practitioner as some of my clients love TapRoot. Each has it's own pro's and con's and you have to decide what works best for you!

The good news and the thing to remember is that you don't have to choose one over the other. In fact you can (and probably should) have elements of both approaches. I dip in and out of old theory and new theory, BBS and SD all the time depending on the client organisation, their culture and the particular pain we are trying to resolve.

The critical word here being 'theory'. Just because someone has written a book about it doesn't mean they are unequivocally correct! Just because there is a lot of theory around on these topics at the moment doesn't mean that there are tried and tested tools and techniques that these people can sell you which will provide a panacea for all your health and safety ills.

My advice to anyone thinking about completely overhauling or slightly tweaking their approach to safety is to start by identifying what is already good and build from there. Don't worry about mixing your Hollnagel's and Heinrich's or your Dekker's and your Reason's, take the best bits of everything and then adapt them to suite your organisation and your culture. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater!

If you have invested in a BBS programme - congratulate yourself and your leadership team because you are already way ahead of the millions of organisations who haven't even done that yet. Safety maturity, as with organisational maturity in general, is a journey of 'evolution' and not 'revolution'. Trust in what you have in place and keep moving forwards.

I'm sure the BBS vs SD debate will trundle on for years to come so in the mean time, no matter who's camp fire you're sitting at try to remember these words which I have unapologetically stolen from an ex-colleague John Sheeran:

"If it looks, feels, tastes and sounds like bullshit, then it probably is!!"

More insights coming soon.

Date: 03/09/2018 | Author: Teresa Swinton