The infamous Guy Fawkes belonged to a group who planned the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The plotters hid a large amount of gunpowder in a cellar beneath the House of Lords in an assassination attempt on the King. However, the authorities received a ‘tip off’ and searched the Palace of Westminster in the early hours of the 5th of November where they found Fawkes guarding the gunpowder.
At the time Londoners were encouraged to celebrate the King by lighting bonfires. In the 17th century the authorities were happy for people to celebrate this way as long as it was done “without any danger or disorder” and today, we still congregate in communities, big and small, to celebrate what could be described as the ultimate safety intervention.
Now politics aside, I am sure you would agree attempting to blow up the House of Lords is a low probability, high consequence event so I am left with a couple of burning questions.
Are we wedded to Heinrich’s triangle with the misconception that there is a link between occupational ill-health, minor personal injuries and major accidents?
Now there is no doubt that our behaviours and action, or inaction, directly influences the culture in which we operate and our operating attitude most certainly determines the performance of organisations. Therefore, it could be reasonably argued that at a worksite level this directly influences both personal and process safety perspective. But what gets measured gets managed and, in the end, organisations are perfectly designed to achieve the results they are currently measuring.
There are many advantages of an observation-based behavioural safety programme but the benefit comes not from the card itself but from discussing safety in the workplace, visible management commitment and employee engagement. Most importantly, it’s about our individual and collective capacity to demonstrate sufficient care for someone to acknowledge what they’ve done well or to act promptly to prevent unsafe acts.
Remember all of us go into environments with a multitude of potentially risky things that we can pay attention to. However, we only have a very limited ability to pay attention to all of them. So people pay attention to the thing that they feel is the most important to them, which is often based on their idea of what the risks in a given environment are, or what they expected to measure. If we want different results and want to improve our major accident hazard performance, perhaps we should consider the way we do things.
Should our current behavioural safety programmes stress the importance of major accident hazard management?
If we are to make a step change then the answer has to be yes. Just because you can measure it, doesn’t mean you should, the risk is that the easy-to-observe drives out the hard, even when the latter is more important in maintaining safe, efficient operations. We have to recognise the possible pitfalls of our current systems in the management of major hazards to move the bias towards observation and measurable success – both in process safety as well as personal safety.
Now – 400 years later – we have to ask ourselves, what are we celebrating? The foiling of the plot or an attempt to change the system?
Les Linklater is an executive director at Step Change in Safety.