Success: The Enemy of Safety?

Safety 2014's opening general session on Tuesday features Dr. Sidney Dekker, who discusses how success can be the enemy of safety.

Dr. Sidney Dekker, an author, public speaker and pilot, gave the opening general session address on the second day of ASSE's conference, Safety 2014. Dekker used several historical examples to discuss how we've changed safety culture over the last 100 years.

He first spoke of a company that was working on a hydroelectric project 80 years ago. 120 workers died, and the company considered the project a success. In just 2012, the same company completed a project with one worker fatality, and it was considered a failure. "We have become phenomenally successful morally at what we do," said Dekker. He then pointed out a woman whose injury was improperly reported so that her company could continue on its "zero injured" streak. Herein lies the current safety industry's biggest problem, according to Dekker: by turning safety into a goal to achieve statistically, companies worry more about "looking good" than actually reducing illness and injuries.

Dekker then discussed the way some companies avoid using the words "defect" or "safety problem" at all costs, referring on vague terms such as "issue" instead. He questioned whether or not we are turning safety into a bureaucratic accountability geared toward making numbers look good.

Positive work cultures, according to Dekker, are ones that allow the boss to hear the bad news. In addition, it is misguided to blame accidents on worker distraction, "dumb" workers or human frailties. Most errors occur when workers are simply trying to get the job done the best way they know, which many times means finishing the incomplete or faulty designs at hand.

Dekker concluded his talk by suggesting that more efforts don't need to be put into the companies where safety is already an issue, but rather the places that are "successful" and don't have any apparent safety issues. Misconceptions – such as the mindset that people are a problem to control or that low numbers mean success – need to be eliminated. Companies need to keep the discussion about risk alive, circulate fresh viewpoints around a workforce and have the capacity to say no.

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