Do you think of safety as something that needs to be added to your organization or as something that is accomplished when you remove risks? Do you spend more of your time getting people to do things or to not do things? Is safety the absence of accidents, the control of risks or something else? The way you think about safety will impact the actions you take and your actions will determine your degree of success. The actions that tend to follow a positive approach to safety differ in some important ways from the actions that are typically used in a negative approach.

The negative approach to safety actually is the most common. Safety is defined as not having an accident and the way to not have an accident is to eliminate hazards and not take risks. The focus is on what the risks are and who is taking them. Hazards are removed from the workplace when possible and controlled to the extent that they are controllable. When workers are caught taking risks, actions must be taken to stop the risk-taking behavior. Even positive activities such as safety training and safety meetings tend to focus on awareness of what not to do. Safety metrics are the failure rates of frequency and severity of accidents and success is defined as failing less frequently and/or less severely.

Removing hazards from the workplace is effective to a point and then tends to produce diminishing returns. Most organizations have been addressing workplace hazards for years. There always are more hazards, but at some point, organizations have to prioritize where they will expend their resources to further improve their safety performance. When they reach a point where each new fix gets progressively more expensive and produces progressively less improvement, they tend to turn toward the human elements of safety versus the conditional elements. Even accident-free workplaces are not hazard-free, and there has been an increasing focus on the behavioral sciences in safety.