Complexity and safety

Complexity and Safety

Popular discussion topic at the moment – republished guest post by the late George Robotham


Depositphotos_8433561_xsEarly in my safety career it became obvious to me that safety is about the people and not about the things and artefacts. It is not about the safety management systems, safety management plans, risk assessments, audits etc. but what the people do with them.

Generally speaking the human being will do things by the least time / least effort way. Much in safety management is simply hard work, we should not be surprised when it does not happen!

Call me slack if you will but I find so much that is written about safety requires me to invest far too much of my time and effort to understand it, I just give up and do not bother. Simple English is the way to go!

Introducing excellent safety managements systems is quite easy, eliminate complexity and focus on your people.


Recent Events

Recently I had the opportunity to comment on two organisations attempts to develop job safety analysis and work method statements or safe working procedures. This stuff is as simple and basic as it gets but both organisations had clouded it in layer of complexity that they were obviously not coping well with. There were procedures for the procedures and extensive signoffs and checks, no wonder things were not working. Safety personnel had put extensive work into overly formalising inherently simple approaches.

A lot of safety represents a just in case or cover your arse approach, great in theory but not realistic when you inflict it on the workers. The Australian worker knows bullshit when he sees it, it is no wonder much of safety has low credibility in the worker’s eyes.

I started a contract with one organisation and they said I should read about their approach to safety. About 200 pages of detailed information, I got to page 50 and gave up. I wondered about how much impact this documentation would be making up the sharp end.

Some in OHS management forget that they are dealing with unreliable human beings and treat people like they are machines, they then wonder why their approaches do not work.


You can have the most complex safety management system but the reality is the example you set will be a determining factor in how it is implemented. People judge you by what they see you doing not by what you say you are doing. Treating people with the upmost respect at all times is essential.

Quotable Quote

“The people are fashioned according to the example of their king and edicts are less powerful than the life (example) of the king” Claudian, c. 365, Egyptian epic poet

Safety change

It is rare for organisational change to be effective if those affected by the change process are not fully involved in the change process. “When initiating change remember, People support what they create.” The 6 P rule is very important in change – Prior Preparation and Planning Prevents Poor Performance.

Attempting too big a change and / or changing things too quickly can create an adverse reaction and alienate the very people you want to make allies. Learn the context, culture and past before trying to make changes. Unless a crisis situation is apparent realise effective change requires a lot of effort and time.

High technology

Some people think complexity is the solution. We live in times of high technology solutions to many problems, these are fine if the essential interpersonal and communications issues are not overlooked.


“Nothing is more central to an organisation’s effectiveness than its ability to transmit accurate, relevant and understandable information among its members.” Keep written communications focussed and succinct. Busy people do not have time to read lengthy documents and busy people do not have time to write them. Always check for understanding. Produce and create an expectation of receiving succinct written communication.

Where ever possible use face to face communication, it is a big mistake to rely on e-mails for communicating major issues. Frame communications relevant to the receivers work environment. Safety people seem to engage in competitions to make simple communications overly complex

Safety leadership

Leadership is the often forgotten key to excellence in most facets of life. Great leaders are always great simplifiers.

The Top 10 Things that are Essential for Safety Leadership

  1. Leaders must visibly demonstrate commitment and focus on safety. Good leaders lead, great leaders develop other leaders.
  2. Leaders must set the safety example.

  3. Leaders must create high safety expectations.

  4. High values and detailed standards of performance must be used

  5. Leaders must listen to and involve the workforce

  6. Leaders must do what they say they will do.

  7. Leaders must value safety goals.

  8. Employees must be made to feel they are part of something important and satisfying.

  9. Leaders must reinforce, reward and celebrate success.

  10. Everyone must be held accountable for safety performance.

The great leaders I have worked with have had an uncomplicated approach to the safety function and a great focus on the people.

Simple Things

Do the simplest thing that will work. Effective systems are a trade off between simplicity and complexity. Systems have to be complex enough that they have identified and meet needs yet simple enough that they are not a big ask to implement.

Displacement Activities

Displacement activities are things we do, things we put a lot of energy into but which there is little valid reason for doing them. Some occupations are full of displacement activities.

The prime example of a displacement activity in safety I can think of is the language and philosophy of zero harm. Lots of companies use it, some government departments promote it, some safety people argue passionately for it. If you took it away, nothing would change.

I was approached by a senior manager of a large Qld organization to help him prepare a presentation to the board to get rid of zero harm; he was going to tell the board zero harm was doing more harm than good. It was clear the employees thought noise about zero harm was garbage and management propaganda. The employees thought the goal was unrealistic and unachievable and that it had driven accident reporting was being driven underground. It has become clear that the organization had lost its focus on serious risk and safety issues and was expending excessive resources on inconsequential things.

There you go, that’s a displacement activity. If you want to work out what a displacement activity is, just take it out of the equation and see if it makes any difference. If there’s no difference than whatever that activity is, it’s probably a waste of time.

OHS in Australia is full of displacement activities. If you took away many of the complicated things that are currently done in the name of safety, it would make bugger all difference.

Some questions for you

Are the safety approaches you are trying to impose on others that same as you would apply in your private life?

Can someone without a safety technical background understand your communications?

Can pictures and / or video replace the written word?

Is safety guidance written by people who do the job?

Is safety documentation tested before being released?


Those introducing OHS change must ensure recommended systems are not overly complex and focused on the reality of the relationships with the people to be effected by the change process.


ADDENDUM from Wayne McCoy:

Good article Dave. 
If I may, I’d like to add to the Leading Safety Essentials:
Senior Managers:
• Get off backside
• Get out on the work floor, “you’re doing a great job”
• “Can you explain why”
• Walk the talk
• On the floor, do Risk Assessment/Audit
• Interrupting at-risk behaviour
• Openly ask for feedback
Operational Managers:
• Remind Safety is integral to production
• Set KPI’s
• Job Descriptions
• Role Model
• Set expectation and hold accountable
• Energise toolbox talks
• What three things keeps you awake at night
• Look out for each other
• Reporting unsafe behaviour
• Acknowledge responsibility for safety
• Informal and formal Risk Assessment
• Speak up
• Positive Feedback
• Celebrate success
• Value they drive safety
OHS Professionals:
Influence everyone
• Be seen
• Visible passion
• Coaching
• Listening and mentoring
• Initiate change
• Understand the business
• Impart knowledge
• Selling the change

By Wayne McCoy

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