SIDNEY DEKKER–“THE SAFETY ANARCHIST”
Hola M. Dekker, how do you define yourself? Who is Sidney Dekker?
After two masters in psychology from the University of Nijmegen and Leiden University in the Netherlands, I got my PhD from The Ohio State University, USA, in 1996, in cognitive systems engineering. I am currently professor at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, where I run the Safety Science Innovation Lab. I am also Chief Scientist at Art of Work, a start-up commercializing many of the innovative safety ideas based in ‘new view’ science from the last few decades. I coined the term ‘Safety Differently’ in 2012. It has since become a book, a website, a film (released in 2017) and a movement. I also am realy motivated to promote restorative just culture as a response to incidents. My films ‘Just Culture’ and ‘The Complexity of Failure’ were released in 2018. I have lived and worked in seven countries across the world. Shortly after becoming professor, I also qualified on the Boeing 737, and worked part-time as an airline pilot out of Copenhagen. My most recent books are: The Safety Anarchist (2018); The End of Heaven (2017); Just Culture (2016); Safety Differently (2015); The Field Guide to Understanding ‘Human Error’ (2014); Second Victim (2013); Drift into Failure (2012); and Patient Safety (2011). And soon the latest one will come out: Foundations of Safety Science: A Century of Understanding Accidents and Disasters (2019).
What does the concept of “The Safety Anarchist” refer to? Could it be considered as a philosophy? Safety Anarchists are people who trust people more than process, who rely on horizontally coordinating experiences and innovations, who push back against petty rules, bureaucratic overreach and coercive compliance, and who help recover the dignity and expertise of human work. I think it is obvious that bureaucratic initiatives are not well-equipped to deal with novelty, diversity and complexity. Bureaucracies want to measure things in simplified or condensed ways, develop standardized responses, and centralize the authority to control and coordinate them. I argue that we need to push back on the triumph of compliance and bureaucracy to recover some of the humanity, dignity, common sense, creativity, and innovation of front-line work. To do this, it lends inspiration from the ideas of anarchism. Anarchism is a set of ideals and ideas, not a state of leaderless chaos and disorder (that would be anarchy). Anarchism values horizontal coordination rather than hierarchical top-down authority; the power of diversity and local expertise; the freedom from petty coercive compliance; the possibility of disruption of standardized protocol and innovation beyond stale routines. Even in heavily bureaucratized and compliance-pervaded systems, work gets done and gets done safely in large part because of the experience and expertise of those at the sharp end. The anarchists’ view of the world is surprisingly close to that of complexity science: complex systems have no central authority, for example, but are grown through reciprocal self-organization. Because of their diverse contributions and openness to the world, they can give rise to novel insights and solutions that are out of reach of an authoritarian bureaucracy. And complex systems produce positive and negative feedback loops, just like anarchistic communities, which help select effective solutions and suppress and self-correct what doesn’t work. Anarchism doesn’t mean that there are no rules or agreements; of course there are. It is about freedom in a frame: understanding that within the bounds of reasonable human agreements and rules, we need to unleash and celebrate the freedom to innovate, to use expertise, to apply experience, to horizontally coordinate rather than hierarchically dictate, and to rely on frontline judgment to get work done safely and efficiently.
When did you come up with this disruptive perspective on occupational health and safety?
It really was the science, the data, and empirical evidence that pushed me into this position. Back in 2012, the Safety Lab, in conversation with lots of partners in industry and other scientists in the field, started putting together that even though work has never been as safe as it seems today, safety has also never been as bureaucratized as it is today. The real problem is, that over the past two decades, the number of safety rules and statutes has exploded, and organizations themselves are creating ever more internal compliance requirements. At the same time, progress on safety has slowed to a crawl. So we have been doing 20 years more bureaucracy, with nothing to show for it, other than more bureaucracy. Many incident- and injury rates have plateaued. Worse, the data shows that excellent safety performance on low-consequence events tends to increase the risk of fatalities and disasters. Bureaucracy and compliance now seem less about managing the safety of the workers we are responsible for, and more about managing the liability of the people they work for. We make workers do a lot that does nothing to improve their success locally. Paradoxically, such tightening of safety bureaucracy robs us of exactly the source of human insight, creativity and resilience that can tell us how success is actually created, and where the next accident may well happen.
Worse, the data shows that excellent safety performance on low-consequence events tends to increase the risk of fatalities and disasters.
In view of this, what can be done to improve the professional profile of the people in charge of occupational health and safety in companies and organisations?
As we asked back in 2018, are safety professionals benefactors for or burdens on their organizations? The professional identity of safety professionals is rife with unresolved contradictions and tensions. Are they advisor or instructor, native or independent, enforcer of rules or facilitator of front-line agency, and, as said, a benefactor for safety or an organizational burden? Perhaps they believe that they are all of these. In that study, led by one of our PhD students, David Provan, we investigated professional identity through understanding what safety professionals believe about safety, their role within organizations, and their professional selves. One of the clearest recommendations is that safety professionals should perhaps spend less time on the work of safety, and more time on the safety of work. That means less time on bureaucratic data management and document control, and more on understanding how work on the frontline actually gets done and how they should serve its success.
Ultimately, it requires a significant shift in how they (and we) see the world: the worker is not the problem to control, we don’t have to tell them what to do the whole time. They are the solution, the problem-solvers, and we should ask them what they need to be even more successful. And we should stop obsessing about stopping every little thing from going wrong, and counting—full of dread—the few instances where they still go wrong. After all, much more goes right than goes wrong! Safety professionals should spend time trying to understand why things actually go right and then tell their organization to enhance the capacities in people, teams and processes that make it so. That is what they should be doing, rather than hunting and trying to close off every pathway where things could potentially go wrong. Because the world is too complex and dynamic for that to ever be assuredly successful anyway.
After all, much more goes right than goes wrong! Safety professionals should spend time trying to understand why things actually go right and then tell their organization to enhance the capacities in people, teams and processes that make it so.
Can you tell us about a successful case related to your philosophy?
Oh, there are plenty. If you’ve seen the film Safety Differently, you’ll have seen three organizations right there who had the courage to declutter their safety bureaucracy, to devolve decision authority down to people at the frontlines, and to decentralize back to the projects, the sites, the stores, the departments, all kinds of safety-related decisions that get made about work. The Lab has also led a number of studies with organizations in the area of successfully and safely decluttering the safety bureaucracies that had started to encrust around work, which are being published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature with some regularity. These kinds of initiatives have saved companies lots of money, and made for happier workers (not necessarily to happier safety people, as they sometimes feel they lose influence). And you only need to go to artofwork.solutions and safetydifferently.com to see many of the other organizations across the world who have embraced a different vision of safety work, so as to make it more authentic to front-line experience and expertise.
If there’s anything in the legislation that is overly punitive and that threatens to put company directors and managers in jail or hand them massive fines when there’s an incident, then that will only keep encouraging risk averseness and thus keep spurring the growth of massive safety bureaucracies. But when you look at the data, legislation and regulation is itself not the problem. In fact, the majority of occupational health and safety bureaucracy is generated internally, by the organization itself: some figures show up to 60% of the rules are self-imposed, not driven by government regulators. This paradoxically becomes even worse in case of deregulation: when governments retreat and leave more of the regulatory task to industry, organizations typically respond by writing even more internal rules, so as to make sure they’ve got absolutely everything covered. Combine that with an increase in contracting (which requires bureaucracy), liability management, technological capabilities for surveillance, reporting and data storage, and what is known as bureaucratic entrepreneurism, and you get a monster safety bureaucracy even in the absence of detailed government regulation. The irony is that the more rules you’ve written internally, the greater your liability risk actually gets. Because the more you’ve got on the books, the easier it is for a lawyer to show that you weren’t doing at least some of it.
In fact, the majority of occupational health and safety bureaucracy is generated internally, by the organization itself: some figures show up to 60% of the rules are self-imposed, not driven by government regulators.
What impact do you think “The Safety Anarchist” could have on the field of occupational health and safety in the future? Especially in heavily regulated environments like the EU.
I have heard it said that works like “The Safety Anarchist” have done more to shift the tone and substance of the international conversation about occupational health and safety in the past years than anything else. That is great news. But where we really need to take a message like this is to company boards, who tend to be quite risk-averse (and substantially illiterate about safety, actually). As long as we (or boards) keep holding managers accountable for low numbers of negatives (incidents, injuries), none of this will really work. The reason for that is that low reported numbers of negatives tend to be correlated with cultures of risk secrecy, of hiding data, of renaming incidents or injuries so that they become something else on the books, of massaging the figures, and thus with higher numbers of fatalities and life-changing accidents. It is, of course, rather ludicrous in any case to hold managers accountable for an outcome measure over which they only have partial control anyway. We, and boards, should instead muster the courage to hold managers accountable for what they are doing to increase the positive capacities of their people and teams and processes to deliver safe, efficient outcomes. We should hold them accountable, in other words, for what they put in, not for what comes out.
Thank you very much, M. Dekker.