What really is safety

October 20, 2023



Greg Smith and I recently did a podcast where I asked Greg about how far the industry has onboarded his wisdom about paper safety. The discussion ended in a very interesting place where we both felt the need to articulate a very basic question – what is safety?


It sounds like a simple question but there are so many dimensions to the idea of safety that we never come to a shared understanding and so I’m afraid we don’t have an answer but we do have some questions for you to reflect upon.


I hope you will enjoy listening and watching this podcast as much as Greg and I enjoyed creating it for you.

Further information



Nippin Anand  00:00

Welcome to another episode of embracing differences with me Nippin. Ireland, a podcast aimed at engaging with different viewpoints and perspectives about how we as human beings learn, unlearn, recognise, risk, tackle risk, and become culturally sensitive. Talking of which, we have a tweet his workshop coming up in London, from the 21st to 23rd of February, on culture and risk intelligence. If you’re wondering, what is the connection between culture and risk intelligence? My answer is this. How can we recognise risk in our everyday life? By stepping into another culture? How much do we tend to normalise? And assume as we go about making sense of the world around us, until we meet someone from another culture, who sees things completely different to us? In those moments, what do we do? Do we judge them? Do we control them? Do we evaluate their culture, their rituals, habits, language, behaviours, ethics and narratives? From our point of view, or do we genuinely make an attempt to understand their culture, from their own point of view, that takes confronting our own assumptions and expanding our worldview. And that is what makes us culturally sensitive and risk intelligent. If you want to hear more, you can go on our website, novellus.solutions/events. And you will find all the details of the event page including a detailed brochure of what we will cover in this workshop. Now, onto this podcast. You’ve heard Greg Smith, the internationally acclaimed lawyer on health and safety who lives in Australia, most famous for his book Paper safe. He and I did a recent podcast just a few weeks ago, where I asked Craig about how far the industry has onboarded his wisdom about paper safety. The discussion ended in a very interesting place where we both felt the need to articulate a very basic question. What is safety? Now it sounds like a very simple question. But there are so many acronyms, there’s so many threads to the idea of safety, that we never come to a shared understanding. Greg and I, in this podcast, challenge this very current view on safety from a legal, operational, but also from a holistic perspective. Consider, for example, in the maritime industry. Safety really is all about finger injuries, or personal injuries. But what about when ships go aground? Is the airline industry really safe? Because planes don’t fall off from the sky? Or could there be other issues, for example, with baggage handling on the ground staff? But I suppose there is a much bigger question here. Which is this? How do we see safety? ZERO ACCIDENTS? Yes, zero reliability issues? Yes. Zero quality issues, yes, and zero customer complaints show. But what about the actual wellbeing of people who are creating all these zero outcomes? I personally see a very painful trajectory that comes from this never ending quest for zero, be it safety, reliability, customer service, or whatever. It’s the wellbeing of people who are at the receiving end of producing this zero targets. You can call it mental health and psychological safety, which should be integral aspects of safety. But I hope you will question your worldview, about what safety is after listening to this conversation. And as usual, I would love to hear your thoughts.



Greg, you you touched upon it briefly. And I thought that should be a separate topic for discussion. But I think it’s a fascinating thing to talk about what really is safety? You know, we have the orthodox view, and we have the emerging concepts. And we have all sorts of confusion around what safety really means. I have lost interest in safety completely. But I think it would be a good place to begin to see what is your view on what is safety.


Greg Smith  04:30

I’m struggling my way through this at the moment, because I’m trying to write a book on proving safety. And so the question is, what is it that we’re trying to prove what’s what is that? So? And it’s interesting, because it’s so if I go back to the start of the thought process, I guess. So I deal primarily with safety from a legal point of view. And the law doesn’t define safety in the legislation and it doesn’t say you have to have a safe workplace. What it says is, you’ve got ought to do everything reasonably practicable to ensure the health and safety of people and that they’re not exposed to hazards. So that’s fine. And then then we run into this difficult conversation which says, well, and it’s really counterintuitive that we can’t do, we can’t say our organisation is safe because we haven’t had an accident. And I, yes, I understand where that comes from. And so we’ve seen these slogans that says things like, safety is not the absence of negatives, it’s the presence of positives or safety is not the absence of accidents. It’s the president of capacities, a couple of the ones that I’ve seen. Except that, if you think you’ve got capacities and positives, and you end up killing two people, are you safe? It’s an interesting question at the same time. If if you have a fatality in your workplace, and you’re prosecuted, and you’re found not guilty, and you’re found that you’ve done everything reasonably practicable, which happens, it’s legitimate. Are you safe in those circumstances? I don’t know what it looks like. And, and safe is, is very subjective. You know, we’ve all had that experience where we’ve been a passenger in a car. And it’s been, we were in South Korea recently. And we’re going from the airport, to our hotel, and this taxi driver was doing 140 and an ADK. Zone. I didn’t feel feel safe, the driver was perfectly comfortable and perfectly safe. So we get, there’s lots of different ways to look at it. I think in that sense. Safety is your archetypal we could problem and defining the way you define typically the way you define the problem. And I think I think this works a couple of different ways in safety in particular, as a wicked problem, the way you define the problem determines your solution for it, there’s no one solution. No. So if you if you if you’re going to build a bridge, there is one there’s the mathematics and engineering rules don’t change, safety, depending on how you define the problem depends on how you manage it. So if if people are the problem, then the way you manage it looks a bit different than if you view people being a solution. But I think what we’re seeing at the moment in safety is that people’s wet wedded pneus to their solutions, is driving the definition of the problem. So if I have a strong belief in behaviour by safety, that’s how I define what safety is. If I if I more down the safety differently path. We’re seeing lots of lots of organisations defining safety around human and operational performance and those sorts of things. That shapes what you your your view of how to solve it. Often your commercial interest in a solution may very often define what you think the problem of, of safety is. I think as a matter of intuition, safety has got to have something to do with freedom from harm. I think it has if I’m if the more exposed I am to harm the less safe. I am. Yes. Can I offer a view? Yeah, fascinated.


Nippin Anand  08:51

Yeah. So yes, freedom from harm. You’re right, Greg, but what kind of freedom from home because you could have, you could own we have a very interesting situation in in the olive oil and gas world, in the maritime world and so on, that people are dying, people are committing suicides, people or people are becoming overly stressed as a result of accidentally how they’re investigated as a result of how how audit audits are performed as a result of how inspectors come across, so arrogant sometimes. Not all of them Nana, so, yes, you know, you may not have physical injuries, you may not have oil spills, you may not have have any sort of non compliance. But what about what about this aspect of risk and safety, which is not talked about at


Greg Smith  09:45

all? No, it’s curious isn’t as we were talking on the drive last night that we had an inquiry into high suicide rates in the fly and flower mining industry. And one of the one of the pieces of evidence in that inquiry was a lifeline report. And that’s suicide helpline. And based on their reviews, one of the biggest contributors to mental stress in the mining environment are actually health and safety rules. So, you’re right. But in this obsessive search to prevent physical harm, what are the harms are we doing on on the way through? I think that’s, that’s a really important issue. And, you know, if I, if I terminate a worker’s employment, in the name of safety? What have I done to that person and their family? And what have I done to the co workers or that person that have I, have I improved their safety you have a compromise it? Or is is institutional safety? Does that override the safety of individuals? That it’s a messy political, social power, just power structure question where, where safety sits? Who gets to decide what is safe, what is not safe? But interestingly, none of that, it seems to me at least, that none of that is factored into the structures we have for measuring safety. So all our lead and lag indicators. They don’t. They don’t define what safety is. So if we’re saying that one of the measures of safety that we have or lead indicator is close out of corrective actions. What’s that contributing? In terms of your overall idea of what safety looks like? What’s that contributing to? And who, who bears again, to your point who bears the brunt of that. So your operational manager, divisional manager, you’re coming up to the end of the month, you’ve got action items that are not closed out, that are unlikely to be closed out, because you haven’t got the resources to do it. But you know that the board is going to look at that number. And if you’re scorecards orange instead of green, so what do you do? You just mark them all knowing that they’re not what does that do to your mental health and well being? What does it do to the physical state of the workplace? It’s I think it’s one of the really interesting conversations. And I think in part, and I think you can get a bit too lost in the complexity, sometimes. But I think in part, the complex the complexity around that question of what is safety continues to drive reliance on injury rate data as a measure of safety. Because, again, intuitively, for most organisations, if we are not having accidents, we must be safe. And I think I don’t think we can discount the power of that argument, too easily. I think. And, but we know, we just know, all the history is there of organisations that are objectively safe based on injury rates, time and time and time again, and you have a catastrophic event. And so a prima facie, you’re not safe, because you’ve had this catastrophic event, but be the inquiry reveals that everything that sat behind that catastrophic event was inadequate, anyway, yeah, the question of what is safe is a really problematic one.


Nippin Anand  13:44

And, you know, this is where I find Rob’s work very, very powerful. Because yesterday, for example, just leaving Canberra, I had a meeting with a woman. And she told me a fascinating story about how often seafarers from the Third World, for example, from from Philippines from India, have to tolerate so much. Cruise ships, particularly where you are expected to, you know, you know, you’re sexually harassed, you’re bullied. And the client comes first, of course, you cannot challenge. Yes. Any sort of, there is no power balance at all. No. So you end up in a very tricky situation where a lot of people feel bullied, harassed, and all sorts of things. How do you How do you tackle that issue? Because clearly, that is a safety issue, right? Clearly, I mean, you can give it any name mental health, you can call it bullying, harassment, but at the end of it,



there is no safety. It’s interesting.


Nippin Anand  14:50

I mean, you think about it going on the bridge of a ship, taking the ship out, you know, in busy waters after being sexually harassed by bullied


Greg Smith  15:01

demands not on the job at all. Absolutely. But we do do that we do that. Conditional is not the right word. But we we frame, the way we frame safety is different, in my view. So we know for example, in industries like the airline industry and rail industry, when they talk about safe operating, its planes don’t crash and trains don’t crash. The fact that you have baggage handlers suffering, muscular skeletal issues all the time, doesn’t get counted for. So you know, when you say quantity is the safest airline in the world. It’s the airline that has had the least number of crashes. Is that the same as saying it is the safest? I don’t know. Neither do I know, I understand. Look, if I’m a passenger of cuantas, what am I more interested in? Yeah, the plane flying and landing, right? I’m not turning my mind, particularly to the state of the baggage handlers.


Nippin Anand  16:10

It’s a bit like what gets measured gets managed? Yeah, yeah. Although it’s a very,


Greg Smith  16:15

yeah, that’s that’s not even a measurement question is that that’s a real public was focused upon Yeah, what gets focused on so again, at the moment, we have this probably really say these inelegantly, but in the last two years in Australia, the focus on psychosocial risk has just been enormous. And I’m really curious to understand, and it probably won’t wash through any numbers for a while. But what does that mean, in terms of physical safety? Is there a risk that we’re actually got less physically safe workplaces now? Because I think I think it has to mean that organisations don’t have this tapped, or this infinite bucket of focus and energy. So if I’m focusing on something, I’m not focusing on something else that, again, we drew mentioned in the last chapter. Yeah, the criticality issues? Absolutely.



No, there was a time when process safety took up a lot of energy, a lot of resources and organisation. The new movement we are seeing seeing is around the line of social psychosocial risks. But I think that holistic view on safety is by and large missing, that’s how I see Yeah,


Greg Smith  17:32

and but I kind of, you know, if I’m, if I’m the chief executive officer, or the Chairman of the Board of other quantas, or have a rail company or high hazard operation, my number one priority and focus is to keep the planes in the air, the trains on the tracks and the hydrocarbons in the pipe. And if some individuals get damaged along the way, the organisation will survive that the organisation won’t survive planes dropping out of the sky.



So isn’t that assumption that all that would happen only because the document has been complied with? My problem is that if you situate it within the within the within the context of social cycle, social, psychosocial risks, for example, isn’t that as important as anything else to keep the planes flying and the ships moving?


Greg Smith  18:30

Look, I think it probably is. And I think historically, that has been looked at through the lens of fatigue in particular, indeed, not, not the not the more compounding effects around it.


Nippin Anand  18:50

I mean, this, and this is, this is where the whole notion of critical risks get very interesting, Greg, because what is the critical risk at the end of it, and how it is, then I’ll just have some very clear definitions around the consequence and likelihood of something going wrong. And I agree with that, I have no problems with that. But a system is only as good as the people state of mind who are managing it, we are at the time. And I think that’s, and that cannot happen in isolation from equipment and systems and so on. We have to take things in more totality. And it’s interesting that, you know, with this new standard of psychosocial risk, for example, you will have a heightened awareness of this issue. But you end up in the same situation where you give regulator a checklist, yep. But no appreciation for what it actually feels that means when you go on the site and do a so called investigation or audit or an inspection.


Greg Smith  19:46

So, here’s a question for you then, particularly in larger organisations, is there I think there is but is there a limit to an organization’s culture? have three to actually take account of all these considerations?


Nippin Anand  20:03

That’s a really good question. You know, Greg, I have a, I have a slightly different view on this. I think we need to turn this question reframe this question a little bit. Because let’s face it this way, there are people who have good intentions, and there are people who will not have some good, they’re driven by other things. I think this question has to be raised at the level of individuals, not organisations, I think you have, and then from individuals, you when you were so for example, when you go into an organisation, you talk to people and you work out by through those one to one conversations, who are the people who actually care for these things. And I think from there, you spread it at the level of the culture of the organisation, I think, I don’t know of another way of doing it, you start small, you identify pockets within the organisation, and then you create the right culture, the right language, the right tone, the right kind of leadership. You cannot take this at the level of society or regulation. It’s not it’s very difficult to achieve that.


Greg Smith  21:13

Part of the problem you have there is a bit or not particularly, we’re dealing with this in Western Australia at the moment, is that often the regulations stymie those sorts of efforts.


Nippin Anand  21:26

Yes, yes, absolutely. Yeah.


Greg Smith  21:28

But But again, the we talked about is in the same way that organisations are very reluctant to let go of process to free up the sort of thing that you’re talking about, societies are very reluctant to let go of regulation of things that they consider to be risky. We’ve had this enormous shift in safety regulation in Australia over the last few years, built predominantly on retribution of justice. So this idea that somebody gets hurt in the workplace, somebody has to be held to account and severely held to account. Once you’ve created that environment, the number of organisations that are willing to adopt the kind of approach that you’re talking about, is really restricted. And I think we’re seeing a much stronger. So as you impose retributive justice at a social regulatory level. That’s what we see in organisations, more more rules, more compliance, more punishment, more discipline, more termination. And ironically, it’s, it’s you’re creating this this system of more punishment, with a view to improving psychosocial health, which really seems counterintuitive.


Nippin Anand  22:57

Can I offer a thought? I think, I think we. So my view is that, first of all, this idea that there is no such thing, society cannot progress through the idea of retributive justice is, I think, stretched too far. That, you know, you can blame or you can learn, and there is no such thing like blame culture is a bit too naive, I think,



I think there is a middle ground Absolutely. More than middle



ground, I think one needs to accept from a cultural point of view that there is no escape from blame, you know, it happens at the level of family, it happens at the level of an individual, it happens at the level of organisation, there is no going oh, no, no roll running away from that. And I think it has its place, you know, so, when there is a accident, there will be somebody to blame, we have not evolved to the Christian history and the Hindu history for that matter, that we will ever create a blame free society. But I think in the day to day running of the organisation, which is looking at things in a more prospective sense, rather than reactive and reactionary sense. I think we can create a lot of positive energy, we can come to a more mature stage to say, actually,


Nippin Anand  24:17

we can we can make some changes, you know, we can go on board a ship, we can do an audit, we can go on investigation, and we can actually listen to



yeah, yes, yeah, yeah. Yes.


Nippin Anand  24:28

Making making it. Make no mistakes, Greg, that I make no mistakes at all that when there is a large scale, catastrophe, there is a there’s a there’s an accident, there’s an incident there will be somebody to be blamed. With Yes, we we have hard times with this contemporary thoughts coming to accept this idea. Yeah, I think it’s a little bit so. So my point is it’s just to answer your question. I think there is there is room for both. There is room for both. I mean a lot of If, for example, I told you what is the point in pushing that Captain to the limits, that we don’t want any inspections on the ship, that you have pushed him to the point that he’s jumped from the ship that we don’t want any defects? I think that’s a little bit going, you’re completely out of balance. Yes, yeah.


Greg Smith  25:16

And, and we do it. And I think sometimes the overreactions are the bit that are quite difficult. So again, we had a, we had an inquiry into sexual misconduct in the mining industry in WA. And one of the recommendations that came out of it was to create those which record a blacklist of people accused of conduct that they’re accused of conduct, they go on to his blacklist. So if they leave the site, they can’t be employed on another site. Now, that really strikes me as this complete denial of any level of fairness and justice, anybody in those circumstances. But again, this is one of those really socially difficult conversations and, you know, as a privileged, white male, I always feel a little bit uncomfortable dipping my toe into this water. So I’ve got no one say that, but, you know, the, the prevailing view is that if a woman says she’s been sexually assaulted, we need to believe it. And I absolutely agree with that we do. But where’s but there’s a trade off there. If that’s the trade off, then the justice for those people is that you have to compromise, I think you have to compromise the justice of other people, or the rights of other people. And there’s net, and these things are never completely fair, one way or the other. But that’s, again, that’s another wicked problem. Indeed. And as soon as you start diving into these wicked problems, you realise the complexity of what you’re trying to deal with. So from a legal perspective, the solution is actually really simple. So legal regulation is very simple and straightforward. Understand the activities in your business, identify the hazards, the things that can cause harm, identify the risks, put in place, controls, implement and enforce the controls and do a system of review that’s linear, mechanistic, very straightforward. But as soon as as soon as you peel away the surface of that, as we’ve talked about, and you say, Well, let’s start with identifying hazards. Okay? What if your hazards are in competition with each other? What if your, your hazard to prevent physical harm is in competition with the things that cause psychosocial harm, where’s the trade off there? Because you don’t, you don’t get the trade off option. So if somebody’s lost a hand in a piece of machinery, and the regulator’s looking at it, they’re not looking at it from the context of saying, oh, part of the contributed to that was the effort you’re putting into managing psychosocial harm. And similarly, if somebody has suffered a psychological injury or injury due to disciplinary type processes, you don’t get to trade that off and say, we’re trying to ensure the physical harm of our people. There’s lots of compromises. And



Greg, I think, what you’re saying is making so much sense to me, the only thing I would say is that there has to be a recognition that the loss of hand in this situation is partly the result of mechanical failures. Yeah, but it’s also partly the result of the state of mind of the person and unless we look at it in a more prospective sense to say, and more holistic sisters say that, you know, we need to address both. So no inspection should be done. No investigation should be done. No audit should be done to actually make a traumatised person more traumatised. Is, is I think it’s a good place to begin well


Greg Smith  29:01

take take this framework and I have been told point point blank by the regulator in two separate meetings involving matters, where we have a person who is absent from work, due to his psychosocial reasons, okay. So workplace stress, bullying, harassment, two separate cases. And we’ve been told by the regulator that because it’s now in because they’ve now very much put their arms around it as a health and safety regulator. We have to investigate these things as health and safety matters, irrespective of the wishes of the complainant. So you’re taking a traumatised person? And, and we’ve already touched on this, but we know that there are lots of deficiencies in the way that organisations investigate safety incidents. And we know that lots of lots of lots of people don’t even receive basic training. means incident investigation knows much less than nuanced. How do I deal with a traumatised person type issue? So again, that’s just another example, in my view of how trying to do the right thing for safety can actually make safety worse. And there’s no, there’s no easy or No, no, there is to it. And I think this is, again, goes to the essence of the work I’m doing now in terms of saying, if you’re trying to prove safety, what is it that you’re trying to demonstrate? And what are the trade offs associated in that conversation? Great, thank you.


Nippin Anand  30:41

Thank you. All right. What did you think listening to that conversation with Greg? For me, I’m not convinced that the emerging views on safety have approached this issue in a more holistic sense. Yes, we do have Band Aid approaches, like picking up concept around mental health or psychological safety. But these are by far, piecemeal approaches and a desperate need to connect between different concepts without having a more holistic sense of the problem, which is going back to a very rudimentary question. What is safety? Anyway, it’s not important, what I think what is important is what you think about this issue. I’d love to hear your thoughts. This podcast is available on several channels, anchor, Spotify, Google podcast and pod bean. It is also available on our YouTube channel team novellas and obviously, you can also find this podcast with complete transcript and a lot of further reading on our website, novellas dot solutions, forward slash knowledge space, where you will find not just this podcast, but many other interesting podcasts where leading experts from around the world. Thank you and have a wonderful day.