Safety Should NOT Be About Safety

by Dr Rob Long on January 29, 2015

in Psychology of Safety and Risk,Robert Long

One of our most popular articles in 2014 in terms of the number of comments. We recently asked “What is Safety”? and got quite a mixed response but I think this article by Dr Rob just about nails it! 

Safety Should NOT Be About Safety

“if your world is just about safety, then your world is too small”

Safety WorldI often get called into organisations under some concern about safety, many see my work as something about ‘behaviors’ but that is not what I am on about. Some think my writing is about safety but its not, and some want me to give ‘fixit’ type stories and illustrations on how to improve safety at work, but I don’t. Can I just say this, if your world is just about safety, then your world is too small.

When I come in to organisations I often start with a range of consultations, ‘walk-arounds’, observations and preliminary training, then deliver some services or maybe a program and it doesn’t take long before someone will come up to me and say: ‘Rob, this is not just about safety is it?’ and when that happens I know we are starting to get somewhere.

Safety shouldn’t be about safety, it should be about living and learning. When safety is made into some bureaucratic, legal or club exercise, it has lost the plot. This is why I prefer to talk much more about risk than I do about safety. The moment you tell someone you are into safety they think you are either the fun police or some legal nerd who loves checklists. If safety is some engineering exercise of shifting objects to keep some system clean, then I think we have lost the plot. If safety is about trying to memorize sections of the Act so that we can dominate and rule others, then we have lost the plot. If safety is a power trip so that we can bully others to ‘keep them safe for their own good’, then we have lost the plot. Safety should be about none of these things. When we put learning first, people first, relationships first, respect first and living first, then we might get to the heart of safety.

When I worked during the Canberra bushfires it was interesting to see how different worldviews understood safety. When I worked with government and the church on the risk management plan for World Youth Day, it was again interesting to see how different worldviews understood safety. During the bushfires in Canberra it was the Department of Community Services that was given charge of managing the human fall out of the fires. This ensured that people-focused-people with compassion, empathy, effective communicators and human understanding worked on the front line with damaged people. Whilst object focused people and logistical focused people are important during a crisis they are not the ones best to communicate or engage with people about risk.

I remember one heated debate during plans for World Youth Day about the threat of a pandemic or chemical attack. We sat at the table whilst some technical people told us how they would empty a building, erect tents and shower people in the street. For them, safety was a logistical problem. We then asked these technical people how they would deal with young children in this crisis and they simply stated the process, easy. We then asked had they thought about such issues of abuse, exposure and dignity of people and children during this process and turned to the excuse of safety to justify an exemption to such things. It was then that the head of the Department of Families and Community Services told the technical people that she would have them charged under the Child Protection Act if they sought to over ride it with their safety crusade. Hmmm, maybe safety is not so simple.

When someone comes out of my training and tells me they now communicate better to their teenager and their relationship has become more respectful, I know they get safety. When someone tells me that their relationships have improved after the safety training, I know they get safety. When someone tells me that their view of safety has been revolutionized and be made more human, then I know they get safety.

When I wrote my first book and considered titles I would have liked to call it ‘Learning Makes Sense’ but then maybe no safety people would have ever looked at it. I still get people write to me and tell me that I should tell workplace war stories and horror stories, tell people how to be safe and belt others over the head with regulations. I don’t think such an approach is either educative or enlivening. So, I called my book Risk Makes Sense and without any publisher or marketing machine have sold close to 10,000 copies. People want to know about human judgment and decision making not how we can belt others over the head with what we know about regulations.

People want to know how we can live with others to make better decisions in living. And, if we do this, then our safety world will get much bigger.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.
  • All too often using the word ‘safety’ sets up the idea that safety issues are somehow over and above the requirements for doing a task. Ideally it should be integrated into every aspect of how a job is done, and also training should include the ‘why’ behind each requirement to enable people to understand and have the criteria for decision-making when things don’t go quite according to plan.

    A few years ago, I worked as a contractor for McDonald’s head office as National Workplace Safety Consultant on a fixed-term contract. I redesigned their workplace safety training to be less theoretical and more based around the key criteria (KPIs) upon which restaurant performance is measured. I found it quite fascinating that they all knew the procedures and ‘how’ things were to be done, but few had any sense of ‘why’, so sometimes they made poor decisions under the heat of peak-time restaurant operations. I explained to them that the safety considerations were already built into the procedures, and we just needed to highlight some of the thinking behind them.

    • You nailed it again Sheri! personal safety and risk management have been an instinctive part of our survival since day dot. I often try an relate it to home and family life – the safety of our kids is paramount but can really go without saying as just an integral part of teaching and preparing them for life – to do it as we do it at work would have them switch off pretty quickly.

      • Too often safety measures aim to keep people safe so managers can take their attention off them. This hinders the all-important learning process that should be taking place as a more experienced person supervises the work activities of a newbie. When people are always KEPT safe, they can become oblivious to taking care of their own safety.

        As you say, the same principles apply to teaching our kids. After a neighbour’s toddler posted a banana into the video machine, I resolved to teach my daughter how to live safely in our home by actively involving and coaching her. I asked her to turn on the TV and stereo to learn how it worked (and also to remove / pre-empt some of the potential for tinkering with forbidden things!). When she played with the volume control and got a fright, she learned not to play with the volume control. I took her with me into the sewing room at about 18 months old and showed her my sewing pins with pretty coloured heads. I showed her that they were sharp and told her to be careful. From then on, every time we went into the sewing room, she would warn me, “You be careful mummy – those pins are sharp!” She sat beside me and organised the coloured pins in neat rows without ever once pricking her finger or attempting to swallow any!

        Likewise, I usually found that providing appropriate access (ie taking into account her capabilities and natural inclinations – I was admittedly fortunate that she seemed to come wired with pretty good awareness of consequences – she told me at about age 3 that she had to get off the driveway or her dad would come in the car and squash her! She also didn’t tackle stairs or other hazards unless I was there, so we never had to have a stairway gate, either!) with good supervision and explanations seemed to preempt a lot of the usual headaches of parenting by building both understanding and trust. You just have to be patient and tell them WHY.

        • So true. I have a very curious son. My wife quickly realised we cannot prohibit him everything, so she started teaching him. He could cook in a microwave oven before he could read (despite everyone saying children should be not be allowed near microwave ovens). I taught him how to test if something is hot without touching it. I think I burned more than he did. Look at Gever Tulley’s presentation “5 dangerous things you should let your kids do.” He also did some presentations about his “Tinkering school”.

          I think every parent should at least be exposed to his line of thinking. He is not reckless – he just makes sense. Teach children how to recognise, manage and use risk.

          • I so agree! I watched my friend struggle with her adventurous and curious son – I used to joke with her that I would give her a medal if he lived to be 5!

            He had childproof locks on all the cupboard before he was born….when his father left the toilet door open, the boy went in and ate the toilet block and had to have his stomach pumped. He swallowed a button, so his mum was on ‘poo watch’ to ensure it was safely excreted. He wandered off while his mum was busy at a LaLeche meeting, and they found him wandering two streets away….when his parents went into a room under renovation to show, a potential buyer a wetsuit they were selling, the boy went unnoticed straight to an electrical outlet with the plate off and grabbed the wires, receiving an electric shock that sent him flying and turned his lips blue! He used his miniature plastic chair to reach the bathroom door handle, then he placed the chair next to the basin and climbed up; his mother found him trying out his father’s razor and shaving cream! So she took the chair away. As he tried climbing, she kept putting things up higher, but he still managed to climb up onto the bench while his mother was out in the garden and turned on the stove-top element which had a wooden cutting board sitting on top of it; his mother came inside to find the cutting board smouldering!

            When the child got a little bigger, he worked out that he could stand on a pillow and hook his toy hammer into the door handle to open doors. His mum soon realised she couldn’t keep him out and left the doors open. Amazingly, he stopped pushing the boundaries!!

            I’m really in favour of an approach similar to Tai Chi – work with the energy / force instead of against it. But for parents, it requires time and patience, as well as keeping your attention in the present and on the child, and a bit of creativity. I had so much fun finding ways to involve my daughter in activities and to discover her capabilities. In the end, she developed a strong internal frame of reference for identifying and managing risk, which is far more safe in the long run than relying on others to do it for you.

    • I was meeting with a client the other day when a contractor came in to do some work – the 5 minute discussion only included checking online induction pass, completing a tick and flick risk assessment and handing over generic Safe Work Method Statements – they both then looked at me for a compliment about how well they were doing safety!

    • Rob Sams

      Sounds like an interesting role at Macca’s Sheri. I’d be interested to know what impact the focus on KPI’s had on how people made decisions and judgments about risk and decision making. Are you happy to share?

      • I would be…and I just wrote out a very long comment, which I have subsequently lost!! I’ll have to comment later…..

  • Seeing lots of positive stuff on LinkedIn lately:

    What an intriguing article and great response’s to it I have loved reading the entire content of this and hope I can get robs book soon – Martin Keyes

    I enjoyed reading this article in its entirety and will be reading more of Dr Robs personal and what I believe are realistic insights. The greatest respect one can give another is to listen and Dr Rob has my utmost respect for calling attention to this thinking I hope others listen Open minds create Open Eyes – Amanda Hamer

  • Gabrielle Carlton

    ‘Safety’ for the people is the language yet the discourse is all about arse covering, policing and compliance. Safety has become so toxic these days that it’s an embarrassment to be known to be affiliated with this industry. I agree with Rob Sams….I’m just not into safety anymore either!! Love the short and concise point Rob!

    • Rob Long

      Yes and there are a host of self serving bodies that have created the monster, legals looking for money, technocrats looking to sell solutions, bureaucrats with a paradigm of paperwork and all of these taking their eye off the main focus – people. I’d love to see what would happen if the industry was deregulated. Dekker has kind of suggested the same and I think he’s right. The mandated safety position has helped create this dumb down focus and I’m not sure going down the accreditation route will make anything better other than take the unqualified out of the system or force them off to University if the SIA gets it way. Its not just the industry but the politics of the industry. It seems the only way to rise above or get around this is to subvert it.

    • Rod

      So true Gabrielle, how we counter it is the issue. In many instances we remove the word safety from the discussion and focus on “doing the job right” – this seems to resonate with the front line workers

      • Amen Rod – funny how thinking and talking and planning and then doing the job in the easiest, most effective and efficient way is always the safest way without even having to mention that word! Oh, and also usually far exceeds any compliance requirements!

        • Rod

          Very true Dave, but it’s amazing how often when you go down this path, there is resistance because what you are doing doesn’t meet some template or model that has been designed to appease the regulator. Never mind that the workforce like it and can relate to it, that rarely gets consideration. Ticking that compliance box in the traditional manner is the key driver sadly

  • Rob Sams

    When the social construct of safety is all about rules, blame, fear and process it’s little wonder that it has become what it has become. Safety is so often now about controlling people, treating them as objects, getting them to behave. I’ve been involved in ‘safety’ since 1993 and I’m just not that into safety anymore. We are not ‘things’, we are people who think and feel. Great article Rob, thanks for sharing.

    • Rob Long

      Yes Rob, the fundamental thing that seems to go out the window with a cert4 OHS is what Weick calls ‘respectful interactions’ instead, the focus shifts to the power enabled by the Act to coerce, dictate, overpower, control, force, dominate and oppress, all justified under the rubric of I’m doing this because I’m saving you from yourself’. The tools for this are nonsense tools of measurement, seduced by attribution and injury data as somehow meaningful for culture. Sadly, I can’t see much in the way of trends towards humanising safety.

      • Rob Sams

        Very sad indeed Rob, but we do have a good community of people (Potatoes) who are working hard to support those who do want to focus on people. It feels good to be part of this community. I’m a proud potato 🙂

  • Russell Marsh

    Could you point me towards this real risk, I thought safety without the word play was going home the way you arrived to the things that matter to you, understanding risk would play a big part in that

    • Rob Long

      Russell, whilst you are right, I’m not sure aphorisms serve safety well, the tendency is towards simplistic solutions rather than an understanding of people and risk as a wicked problem. The gift of discerning real risk as opposed to fabricated risk is the art of leading. The preoccupation with measurement, law, regulation and bureaucracy unfortunately distorts the main game and safety people end up using honorable goals for dishonorable outcomes and methodologies. One can’t know real risk without better understanding human judgment and decision making and humanising the place of risk in living and learning. Otherwise we just end up frustrated with why the carrot and stick don’t work.

      • Russell Marsh

        Thanks Rob, biggest bang for my buck, where should I start, I genuinely care for the well being of my workmates, what would be a good book, I have heard one called risk makes sense, is that a good starting point or something else you would recommend,, thank you for responding. I posted originally as Swampy before signing up. My original post was meant with good intent and trying to win a book, the firm replies I have received make me feel way off the mark yet I am open to challenging everything if it can give people meaningful advice and support around risk.

        • Hi Russell – its taken me a couple of years to get my head around all this stuff and its just now starting to make sense but I have a lot still to learn! I used to be a spud head and kicked a lots butts in my day in the name of safety, at the same time continually banging my head on a brick wall as the harder I tried the worse it got. So this has required quite a paradigm shift in thinking for me.
          send me your postal address to and I’ll send you a free copy of “Real Risk”. Just keep reading the articles by all of our awesome authors (go back and read their previous ones) and asking lots of genuine, positive questions and it will all fall into place. This is not another plug and play silver bullet system with a trendy acronym – its about people and how they think and learn and that is pretty complex stuff. Welcome aboard.

          • Russell Marsh

            Thanks Dave, will do, looking forward to it

        • Rob long

          Mate, email me at
          With your postal address and a complementary set will be on its way,

  • Swampy

    Mr potato head is saying regardless of what country you live and the social, economic climate and laws relating to safety in that country, all of us just want to return home to the people we love and the things That matter most to each of us, that is the universal driver for safety that crosses all language and cultural barriers

    • Thanks Swampy – i would be interested in hearing what Mrs Potato Head has to say – she would probably understand real risk better than her husband

      • Swampy

        Could you tell me more Dave, or point me towards some good reading, I have seen some of your stuff on LinkedIn and new to safety ( 2 years without prior exposure) , I just want it to be real , meaningful and worth it eg make positive improvements hopefully without a fatality

        • Rob Long

          Mr Potato head probably reads Why we Make Mistakes by Hallinan and Brain Rules by Medina

  • Jim

    Take your point on WHS regulations. Many rely on the benevolent interventions of state sponsored organisations to evoke some kind of effective social change through legislation. Good for you, and the many others, for looking beyond safety and the ‘requirements’.

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