November 30, 2018 | Nancy |

Changing the Rules to Stay Safe | A Book Review of The Safety Anarchist



There are no rules here…we’re trying to accomplish something. – Thomas Edison

In 1927, it is estimated that 11,700 Americans were killed by their own government.

Not on purpose, mind you, the government was only trying to protect its citizens. One thing you need to know about 1927 is that it was the height of Prohibition – meaning the consumption of alcohol was against the law. Of course, this didn’t stop people from drinking alcohol, as the law had intended, it simply changed the means by which people acquired alcohol. One option was to drink alcohol designated for commercial purposes, which meant it was still legal. To dissuade people from this option, the government intentionally poisoned commercial alcohol (many times this was done by adding Strychnine, one of the world’s deadliest poisons).

Instead of people eschewing alcohol altogether (thus avoiding the many problems brought on by excessive drinking) what ended up happening was that this poisoned alcohol wound up in bootlegged liquor, which was then sold to whoever wanted a taste.

In a well-intentioned attempt to protect its citizens from the myriad evils of alcoholism, the excessive regulation enacted by the U.S. government actually made Americans less safe.

The Safety Anarchist

In The Safety Anarchist, author Sidney Dekker argues that much like during Prohibition, the current safety culture has become so cumbersome that it actually has the opposite effect than was intended – and workers are more at risk than ever as a result.

The book offers a rich history of safety and draws on a great body of research to validate its hypotheses, including plenty of real-world examples. Consider some of these salient points:

  • Work has not been safer for over 20 years now. In many developed countries, work was generally as safe in the late 1980s as it is now. Yet the amount of safety bureaucracy has doubled over the same period, without any noticeable increase in safety.
  • Succeeding in lowering a non-serious injury incident rate definitely puts an organization at greater risk of accidents and fatalities.
    • In shipping, injury counts were halved over a recent decade, but the number of shipping accidents tripled.
    • In construction, most workers lost their lives precisely in the years with the lowest injury counts.
    • In aviation, airlines with the fewest incidents have the highest passenger mortality risk.

The argument Dekker makes is that the focus has been on the wrong indicators, e.g. number of accidents, resulting in stifling bureaucracy and creating incentives for workers to ‘cheat the system’ to achieve the ‘right safety numbers,’ rather than working towards greater safety.

One example given of bureaucracy working against people’s safety involved a jet pilot who was being reprimanded for not following the appropriate rules and regulations. Sounds logical though, doesn’t it? If anyone should be required to follow rules, it should be jet pilots who are literally in control of 300-plus lives. However, in this case, the pilot had successfully navigated bad weather and safely landed the plane. The problem was that in doing this, he had circumvented some of the regulations and procedures required to be followed during a runway approach. At his hearing, he read aloud every oral call-out, checklist response, and radio transmission that company and civil aviation authority regulations required during the approach. It took seven minutes – the approach itself had only taken four. In effect, following all the rules and regulations was an impossibility and would have actually endangered the pilot and passengers.

Anarchy vs. Anarchism

While Dekker makes some valid points, turning into a ‘safety anarchist’ sounds a bit reckless and dangerous, doesn’t it? There are problems with a centralized, controlled management of safety, but wouldn’t complete safety anarchy be worse?

Not to worry, Dekker agrees. The Safety Anarchist is not advocating safety anarchy, but anarchism, which Dekker points out are quite different:

  • Anarchy is a state of affairs. It is a state of societal disorder that results from the absence or non-recognition of authority or agreements. Anarchy can even be a state of total chaos, when law and order have collapsed and people’s impulses run riot, nihilistically, with no moral values.
  • Anarchism is an idea, or a set of ideas and ideals. These represent the belief in limiting centralized control and in abandoning coercive means and institutions to get people to comply with imposed standards. It involves the organization of communities of people on a voluntary, cooperative, horizontal basis.

Moving Towards Safety Anarchy

So, how do you go about dismantling a safety culture built on rule-following and regulations and govern as would a safety anarchist? The Safety Anarchist offers a detailed implementation plan, including a case study of successful safety anarchism at Woolworths. For the purposes of this review, we won’t share the entire plan, but will highlight the following options that can be implemented:

  1. Change the job title of your zero-harm manager. Give people a title that says what they do to get to the objective, not a title that is the objective. And instead of defining your objectives in negative terms (‘nobody gets hurt,’ or ‘zero harm’), think of positive objectives instead (like ‘happy, healthy, empowered partners’).
  2. Promote safety as a shared, guiding principle.
  3. Optimize local efficiency but be willing to make sacrifices.
  4. Facilitate interaction and build connections.
  5. Create capabilities for self-organizing.
  6. Eliminate targets and managerial bonuses for safety performance.
  7. Eliminate safety observations, particularly those that are directed from above and that have numeric targets attached to them.
  8. Permit pride of workmanship.
  9. Facilitate novelty and diversity.
  10. Create the conditions for intrinsic motivation to blossom.
Nancy Laviolette
About Nancy Laviolette

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