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Asking questions is a great way to learn, to grow and improve.  Today, my question for you, is what’s it for?

Hey, it’s Andrew, and this is Safety on Tap.

Since you’re listening in, you must be a leader wanting to grow yourself and drastically improve health and safety along the way.  Welcome to you, you’re in the right place.  If this is your first time listening in, thanks for joining us and well done for trying something different to improve! And of course welcome back to all of you wonderful regular listeners.

As I’m recording I’ve just finished up at a conference, the SIA Safety Forum held in Sydney, September 2018.   This one question, what’s it for, will help me explain why I was there, and also explain why it’s one of the most pressing questions for health and safety professionals right now.

So, what’s a conference for? Professional development? Networking? I think they’re the two most common ones, amongst the smarty pants ones like a buffet lunch.  So what’s professional development, and networking for? To learn? To get better? To improve your performance? And what’s all that for? To get a better job, a payrise, more power? Or maybe to better contribute in some way to actual health and safety, people going home?

I was asked to contribute to the conference, which had a theme of safety differently.  I’m not really in any particular camp when it comes to new philosophies of safety, but I am interested in facilitating the ongoing discussion about these sorts of things in our professional community.  Knowing that I like to do things differently, with a little ‘d’, they asked if I could put together a rocking panel discussion.  What’s it for, I asked? The organisers wanted to explore safety differently in the context of highly regulated environments.  What’s it for I asked? This started to delve into a deeper reflection about that topic, how it fit, and how this discussion would contribute to what the conference was for.

To better understand what this panel was for then, for anyone who isn’t familiar, let me explain the whole safety differently thing.  This is the title of a book by Sidney Dekker.  But it’s not just Dekker and safety differently, there are a set of common-ish principles, or insights, which are all cross-pollinated with Safety I/Safety II by Hollnagel, resilience engineering by Woods and others, human and organisational performance, or HOP after General Electric and Edwards and Conklin, who also uses the term ‘new view of safety’.   A few of the guests on previous episodes have touched on these ideas.
Anyways so back so these principles.  Two in particular seemed relevant for this topic.  First, the principle that safety is an ethical responsibility not a bureaucratic activity.  Second, that safety is more about positive outcomes & capacities (things going right) as negative events (things going wrong).
So, if we’re trying to learn about these and put them into practice, and we operate in a highly regulated environment, which we would all tend to agree can encourage a focus on safety bureaucracy and obsessing about things going wrong, then we could have some real barriers to change ahead of us.  So what is the panel discussion for? To bring diverse perspectives together in a discussion about that potential barrier, and what we can do about it.  As the facilitator and architect of the panel, I was clear and happy, I knew what it was for.

Now many panel discussions at conferences are a great attempt at social learning, but terribly executed.  In fact it’s not just panels, plenty of traditional keynote type presentations are below average too.  The time, reflection, advice and effort that I put in to approach and engage each of the panellists to join in this learning mission reflected the importance of this learning experience.  Part of that process is making sure collectively we agreed what the panel was for, and in turn, why I asked them to be on the panel.  Each person was asked to contribute for a specific reason.  We invested time to get to know each other, and for me to nurture some connectedness amongst us and paint a picture of the kind of discussion we had the potential to have.  There was a little coaxing, and a little hosing down.

We had 70-ish people rock up. I started by asking the audience, you’ve come here for a panel discussion, what do you think it’s for, for your specific situation? I introduced each of the panelists by the unique perspective I asked them for, in the context of the topic. We began. We explored. We had a free flowing and at times challenging discussion. Andrew Bowe was basically the only high risk, frontline, operational, non safety person in the room, who does actual work. If people are the solution as Safety differently espouses, I kinda thought it important that we didn’t just have a bunch of Safety people theorising or scheming without someone like him, the frontline worker who is the philosophical and practical focal point of our attention. He brought a rich and unique perspective. Deirdre Lewis from Origin describes the challenges of bureaucracy in a business which tends to apply the same kinds of safety to a monstrous power plant to a three person ma and pa contractor installing solar panels. Cam Warren shared how he doesn’t do Safety differently, rather how Safety differently flavours what he does. And previous guest Greg Smith gave us a hard poke in the chest, as a lawyer, about the need to do lots of things differently, putting to bed much of the compliance arguments for bureaucratic Safety clutter.

We had a great discussion.

I thought the audience were getting some value, so towards the end of the allotted time, I asked permission to continue the discussion beyond the official finish time, for anyone who wanted to stay. Over 40 minutes later into overtime, barely a soul had left the room, and we could have kept going. But it had to finish at some point, so my final question to the audience was a request: by way of the volume of your applause, could you let us know if you got what you came for? For this discussion, did we deliver what it’s for? And they went off, as raucous as a bunch of Safety people could get. They got what they came for.

If tomorrow, your organisation took you all away, all the safety professionals, in almost all companies, almost all of the time, nothing would change. That might sound controversial, so let me try and convince you. I’ve had this hunch for a while, which is one of the reasons why I don’t practice health and safety in a job anymore, because almost all the jobs out there ask us to create this situation.  So I had to create the kind of job which was a better fit for me. Drew Rae and David Provan, who you’ve both heard on the podcast before, have taken a good hard look at this hypothesis, in order to answer this question. What’s it for. What’s our job for. What’s our function for. What’s our systems and procedures and risk assessments and audits and inspections and leadership programs and training and all that, what’s it for.
In the research they did, they have come to describe a few categories that broadly organise what we do and what it’s for.
In no particular order, the first of the four categories is…..
– Social safety.  This is a type of conceptual work aimed specifically at maintaining safety as a value, and the organisation’s belief in itself as a champion of safety. Think Safety moments at the beginning of meetings, and all the Safety slogans like Safety first or vision zero.
– Next is demonstrated safety.  This is structural work oriented towards stakeholders outside of the organisation, showing that the organisation is meeting its safety obligations. Think Safety data reporting to clients, or management systems certification.
– Thirdly, administrative safety is structural work oriented inwards, providing a mechanism for safety concerns to influence operational work.  Procedures and rules, safety management system stuff, and all the compliance checking that goes long with that.

Actually, this is in a particular order. Well the first three aren’t. But this last one, you might guess is what’s missing, arguably the most important. The most important answer when we ask what it’s for, is the safety of work. Actual physical, real, tangible, practical things that eliminate or minimise actual risks. The stuff that directly relates to people being and staying safe and healthy. Think safer equipment or task redesign.  What that means, is the other three categories of ‘safety work’ aren’t obviously tied to the actual outcomes of health and safety.

Now you might feel a little defensive.  I’m not saying any of this is good or bad, all I’m suggesting that asking ‘what’s it for?’ gives us greater clarity about the link between the work we do, and the outcomes we espouse are our professional goals.  And the research goes into more detail about that.

Ok I’m guessing I might not have convinced all of you listening of my rather uncomfortable suggestion earlier that not much would change if we disappeared. So let’s do this. Spend a little time, it needn’t be much, looking at your calendar, and categorise your time and activities and outputs according to what it’s for. You might like to use the little worksheet I’ve made for you if that helps. I’ve tried to help you jot this down so you can make your own mind up, about all the things you do, and what it’s for.

Once you do this, I hope you can reflect more deeply on this question of what it’s for. If you breakdown your tasks and the things you create, you’ll build a picture of your job and what it’s for. And multiple peoples jobs tell you what your entire function is for. And maybe, what is one third of your life, spent at work, what is it for. And if you are really bold, ask your operational people what they think specific safety stuff is for, and see how that compares/contrasts with your views.

Discovering the answer to the question of what is it for, is hard. And it gets harder to decide what to do next.
Having someone else ask, to listen and encourage reflection, to challenge and cheer you on, is helpful. Learning & growing is a social thing. Like that panel, we get great value when we learn together.

So there are a few things I would like you to consider.
First, if you work in a team, even if there are just two of you, take other members of your team through the exercise I’ve just described. Don’t just tell them your result or conclusion, especially if you are the boss. Take them on the reflective learning journey, it doesn’t take long, and you’ll have plenty to talk about when it comes to how you work and serve the people you serve.

Head over to to get a download I’ve created which outlines the safety work model, and gives you a little exercise to undertake to work out how you spend your time and what you create, fits into the safety work categories.  It will help you answer the question, what is your time and your outputs for? Get this free download at

Second, if you find there is lots of stuff and activity and clutter that exists in the name of Safety in your organisation, stuff where you’re not sure or not convinced when you ask the question ‘what’s it for?’, you might get value from an upcoming workshop Dave Provan and I are hosting, specifically focussed on decluttering your Safety stuff. It will be a practical, structured, social learning day to help you get started on clarifying the purpose of the things you do and create, and work out what’s useful, what’s clutter, what to do about it, and how to avoid it in the first place.  We’ll take you through a research based structured process so you aren’t just chucking stuff out willy nilly, you can engage your organisation and importantly your senior managers to show you are improving with clarity, with rigour, and confidence. It’s a good place to start so when anyone asks the question ‘what’s it for’, we’ve got some better answers.

If you want to learn more visit, we’d love to see you there. Oh and if there isn’t a workshop listed in your city, pop your details into the relevant section there and we’ll bring a workshop to you.

Thanks so much for listening, I really appreciate being part of the learning journey with you.  Until next time, what’s the one thing you’ll do to take positive, effective or rewarding action, to grow yourself, and drastically improve health and safety along the way.  Seeya!