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Explaining the Growth of Effective Safety Systems­­­­ model

Focus on fundamentals, secure commitment from all

By Dave Fennell

Safety in an organization is continually changing — hopefully moving toward a safer workplace. Changes can be found in the safety culture, the complexity of management systems, the intent of programs, the effectiveness of safety processes and the overall maturity. There are a number of models that attempt to describe what the changes may look like — or even feel like — and these models often describe the stages in abstract terminology. Mark Fleming of Saint Mary’s University in Halifax (also DuPont Safety) described maturity in three stages: dependent, independent and interdependent.

Professor Patrick Hudson of Lieden University in the Netherlands used a five-stage model with abstract descriptors like pathological, reactive, calculative, proactive and generative. The University of Queensland’s Health and Safety Centre in Australia suggests a five-stage model that includes vulnerable, reactive, compliant, proactive and resilient.

I do find these models interesting, educational and even intriguing, but, I must admit, the piece that is always missing for me is a practical and simple way of assessing where an organization is on the maturity curve and knowing what needs to be done for the growth of effective safety systems. Also missing are the tools and processes required to move to a more advanced level. 

This need was the driving force behind the Growth of Effective Safety Systems model. The model was first built in 1999 and was validated across a variety of workplaces. The ultimate validation came from Dan Petersen as we discussed a hand drawn version of this model over an iced tea. “This makes a lot of sense,” he said and offered some refinements. Given my admiration and respect for Petersen, his words were enough to encourage the use of this model in my ongoing safety work. 

The vertical axis on the model is injury frequency and the horizontal axis is time.

For simplicity purposes, let’s measure the effectiveness of the safety in terms of injuries. Every type of work has an inherent level of risk and a certain number of injuries will occur if there are no safety systems in place. The model represents the improvements in safety over time.

Getting the fundamentals in place is the first stage. These are the basics such as awareness programs, inspections, maintenance programs, incident reporting and regulatory compliance. The workplace conditions are managed through structured inspections and a hazard identification process. A simple system of reporting is in place for identifying when things go wrong. Picture the fundamentals as the foundation of a house; the cement must be dry and hardened before building the walls. Keep it simple, be patient and don’t be tempted to grab a silver bullet in hopes of progressing quickly to a more advanced level.

The next stage is all about making those basic tools and processes work by getting commitment to the fundamentals. This involves getting buy-in and ownership from supervisors and line managers. Safety cannot remain in the hands of just the safety group or safety professional but must be seen as something the line management owns and is committed to. At this level, supervisors demonstrate their commitment to the incident reporting system by encouraging and supporting proactive reporting of near-miss incidents. They must ensure that information from the safety program gets into the workers’ hands (and minds) and that workers are properly trained.

At this stage, safety begins to take on a more proactive and predictive approach where employers don’t just respond to events, but start focusing on how to predict and prevent them. Using our house analogy, we now have a structure with a solid foundation, walls, roof, windows, rooms and utilities and most importantly, we have a homeowner (the supervisor) who is going to take care of it.

The third stage is where we now put the safety management systems in place to ensure the long-term sustainability and continuous improvement of safety. “Systems” provide structure and protocols on exactly how we manage the information from investigations, near-miss reports, inspections and hazard reports. The systems define timing on follow-up and responsibilities for follow-up. Structured systems are in place for exactly how and when training is delivered. They describe who will be involved in managing change, who will be involved in developing and maintaining procedures and how ongoing development of supervisors will be managed. Measurement and analysis become increasingly important as they allow for the “check” part of a “Do, plan, check, act” system.

Accountabilities for safety become integral. Everyone from senior management right through to front-line workers, office staff and support staff will all have accountabilities and responsibilities. Management is accountable for the overall systems and the safety culture. Supervisors are accountable for the conditions of their workplaces and the actions of their workers. Employees themselves are accountable for using the systems and for the actions they take.

This stage will continue to yield improvements that are supported by a strong business case with fewer incidents, less downtime and improved effectiveness.

Back to our house analogy, we now have a structure with highly efficient utilities, all the furnishings, excellent insulation and completely rigged with instruments for detecting problems with temperature, security and utilities. Our house is equipped for all seasons and can adapt to changes as needed, and we have a supporting team of plumbers, electricians, housekeepers and cooks to keep it all working.

And then one day we look at our house and think “What would make this place state-of-the-art?” and “Do I understand why the residents in this house behave the way they do?” When we ask these questions about the state of safety in our organization, we are ready for the next stage with specialized approaches to put the added touches into our safety house. Human factors in safety and engineering become critical so that we understand the interaction between equipment, management systems and people — the three key aspects of what it takes to make a safe workplace.

In this stage we need to understand our safety culture and know how to use tools, such as a safety perception survey, to discover our strengths and improvement areas. Organizations that want to be leading-edge and achieve the vision of nobody being hurt must understand human behaviours and include a behaviour-based approach within their safety system.

Risk tolerance and the factors that influence risk acceptance are essential at this stage for the ongoing improvement of safety. We need to understand why people take risks and know how to influence safer choices. These specialized approaches to safety can be exciting and enticing for an organization but must never be viewed as the silver bullets in a hurried attempt to get to zero.

To determine where your organization may be on the growth curve, conduct a high-level assessment and then make decisions on the next effective steps to continue the growth and maturity of the safety systems. And just like you would do an assessment of your home to ensure the foundation is still solid, the walls are still sturdy, the roof and insulation are sound and the utilities are all functioning efficiently, you can use the Growth of Effective Safety Systems model to assess the effectiveness of your safety house and the people therein.

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2017 issue of COS.

Dave Fennell

Dave Fennell
Dave Fennell is an independent safety consultant and motivational speaker based in Cochrane, Alta. He is well-known for his expertise in risk tolerance, human factors and behaviour-based safety. He can be reached at , or visit for more information.
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