Highlights from Sidney Dekker’s Presentation at ORCHSE’s Asia Pacific Forum

Sydney, Australia | March 14, 2018

April 09, 2018

We were fortunate to hear Sidney Dekker speak at our Asia Pacific Forum meeting in Sydney, Australia on March 14. He focused on rules and regulations and their relationship to injury experience. I had heard references to this work in presentations by other speakers, but hearing from Sidney helped me to understand what he was really getting at.

Some of you may have heard about the intersection in a town in the Netherlands where road signs, stoplights, crosswalks, and other attempts to regulate the interaction between humans and vehicles were removed. When I first heard this, I thought it was a dangerous idea, but I had missed the point.

His point is that the circumstances and the culture of those involved in the process should govern the type of control. Layer upon layer of controls that create confusion or that are only partially understood do not help to prevent incidents. People who make the process work every day need to be able to work out and implement the safe way together. The townspeople were able to work out how best to manage the intersection, based on their understanding of what to expect from each other. They focused on enhancing what works, rather than trying to control what doesn’t work. 

Dr. Dekker made another interesting point about the use of rules and regulations as controls to prevent injuries. Too much complexity in the form of detailed rules and procedures can actually detract from safety. Workplaces with more rules and procedures have higher rates of injury than those that have worked to reduce the number of rules, simplify procedures, and decentralize authority. Simplification is most successfully achieved by asking the employees who are closest to a process to work out the best approaches for controlling the risk.

In such an environment of trust, a learning culture can evolve that leads to less fear of reporting incidents. Not surprisingly, workplaces with higher rates of reported injuries have a lower incidence of fatalities than those with lower rates of reported injuries. Why? Likely because absence of fear of reprisal and faith that management will take action in response to employee concerns leads to greater reporting of risky conditions.

Again, Dr. Dekker does not mean that we should discard all rules, procedures and regulations, rather, we should empower people to solve the problems they face in the workplace every day, and focus on how to keep things going right.

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