Dr David Provan

What Is the Role of a Safety Professional?

In this episode, Mary Conquest speaks with Dr David Provan, an award-winning safety researcher who investigated the role of safety professionals. David is also the CEO of Forge Works, founder of Safety Futures, and host of ‘The Safety of Work’ podcast.

In This Episode

In this episode, Mary Conquest speaks with Dr David Provan, an award-winning safety researcher who investigated the role of safety professionals. David is also the CEO of Forge Works, founder of Safety Futures, and host of ‘The Safety of Work’ podcast. David begins by explaining why it’s important to define the role of the HSE professional and what role scientific research plays in the safety profession. He then shares the main factors that shape the role of a safety professional, which he’s categorized as: institutional, relational, and individual.

David discusses the limited decision-making authority held by safety leaders and how they can move from a position of challenging to influencing to improve workplace safety. A key part of David’s research was exploring the identity of a safety professional. He discovered real tensions playing out in the mindset of safety people, concluding that the identity is confusing and paradoxical! David’s enlightening research findings are essential listening for EHS practitioners, and he also shares his ‘scary’ conclusions after studying the activity of HSE professionals. Do you agree you spend too much time on safety work rather than initiatives directly contributing to the safety of work?

This high-impact interview will get you thinking deeply about why and how you do what you do as a safety professional.


- [Mary] Hi there. Welcome to "Safety Labs by Slice."

What is the role of the safety professional? If you asked 100 different safety practitioners this question, you'd likely get 100 slightly different answers. There would be some common themes, of course, but as organizational structures and expectations change in the world of safety, it's a question worth investigating. Today's guest explores this question in his academic work.

In fact, his thesis was entitled, "What is the Role of a Safety Professional: The Identity, Practice, and Future of the Profession?" I'll ask him about his views, both as written in this paper and as they've developed in his personal experience in the safety field. Dr. David Provan is an adjunct fellow at the Griffith University Safety Science Innovation Lab and the managing director of Forge Works and Safety Futures.

He has more than 20 years of safety leadership experience across several high-hazard industries. David completed his doctoral research on the role of safety professionals and the design of safety organizations for which he was rewarded the Dr. Eric Wigglesworth OHS Education Medal. David is the host of the popular, "The Safety of Work Podcast," which translates safety science in a practical way and is listened to each week by thousands of professionals in more than 100 countries.

And he joins us from Melbourne. Welcome.

- [Dr. Provan] Yes. Good. Well, good afternoon for you, good morning for me.

- I'm just going to dive right in here. Why is it important to define the role of the safety professional?

- Yeah. It's a really good question. How I came about this topic, I'd worked as a safety professional for 15 years in different industries and different levels of organizations. But it wasn't until I was in an organization in the commodity sector, resource sector, that was faced with very significant cost pressures and I had to do a very large restructure that would result in more than 50% of my team leaving the organization, that I was really forced to think about what is the value proposition for a safety team?

What is their contribution to the level of safety risk inside an organization? That led me to the university to try to figure out what research had been done. And we found some interesting work but also found the field to be mostly lacking in good description of the role and good understanding of the role, which led to me doing my PhD, which I think helped me anyway answer that question.

And even today, organizations invest tens of millions of dollars having a safety team and rarely sit down and work out what is the contribution I want this safety team to be making to the organization.

- In that paper, you mentioned that there wasn't...and you've just mentioned now, there's kind of a dearth of literature on the subject. What role does scientific research currently play in the safety profession, and what role do you think it should play?

- Look, I think for a long time, safety research has focused on sort of everything other than the safety organization. It's focused a lot on safety leadership, safety culture, risk management and safety management systems, and incident investigation, and lots of things that companies do for safety. But it's sort of been absent thinking about these dedicated resources that organizations have, which are in full-time safety jobs, and what those roles do or don't do, and what they contribute or don't contribute.

So, I think safety science has an important role to play. Hopefully, following my PhD, I know of a handful of other PhDs that have commenced in various aspects of safety professional practice, and I think it is something that's got an increasing research agenda as all organizations really want to understand and justify the value of every dollar spent in the organization.

- I'd like to note for the audience too, that this paper that I'm referring to is five years old. And so I'm asking both in terms of what was written in the paper, but also certainly if you found anything, if you've changed your mind about anything, or you've found that the field itself has changed in that time.

- Look, I think it has very much so. I think it is becoming more and more professional every year and there's a whole lot of institutions around the world and professional associations around the world that are working on professionalizing the role. There's still some real challenges around that and we might talk to some of those, but I'd like to think the profession is definitely getting stronger.

- Okay. So, just to lay it out, your primary research question was, what is the role of a safety professional? But as you tried to answer that, you came up with five sort of sub-questions, sub-research questions, and I'll use those to kind of frame our discussion a little bit.

So, the first one is about the factors that shape the role of a safety professional, which are...I don't even know how you managed to wrap your mind around it because it seems to me they would be infinite. But you did categorize them into institutional, relational, and individual factors. So, as we talk about those, I'm curious about how these show up, the tensions and the contradictions to the safety professional in the day-to-day.

So, what are some examples of institutional relationships or factors?

- Yeah, I think just that framework. When doing a literature review, this first paper was part of the literature review. So, my first objective was to try to understand everything that had been written about the safety organization in the last 20 or 30 years. So, really understand what is the current state of knowledge around this role, published knowledge. And so needing a framework to try to categorize those different publications or ideas.

And so I went to social psychology and sociological theory because really the performance of a role inside an organization, it's a relational sort of role. And so you've got these structural factors, which we call institutional. So, these are the norms and the structures of the organization, which shape the role. And then we've got these individual factors.

These are the knowledge and skills and capabilities of the professional themselves, which is a bit more agency-related. And we know this longtime debate in social theory around the relative influence of structure and agency. And then we've got these relational factors, which is how the people relate to other people in the organization and relate to these institutional factors.

So, it'd seem like a nice framework to start to think about what are the different factors that we have. So, for example, if we think about institutional factors, we're talking about things like regulation and laws and standards. We're talking about the business processes inside the organization, the financial objectives, the safety management system, the underlying safety culture, the formal job design of the safety role.

These are these sort of...I want people to think about these formal structures and external influences on the individual.

- Okay. And then so for relational, I found an interesting...relational being between...so institutional is influence of institutional issues like you've just mentioned. And then relational, that's between people, essentially. Am I right or...?

- Yeah, largely. There's a few pieces in aspect of how the safety professional relates to some of the formal structures like decision rights and authority and the safety systems and processes themselves. So, there's a little bit of that, but it is mainly by and large how the safety professional relates to other roles in the organization.

- Okay. And you have this great chart that caught my eye. And I'll try to explain it. I realize it's a podcast. But there's two spectrums. One is about how firmly the safety professional holds a viewpoint of their work, where I suppose a point of view of their work. And the other one is about how many decision rights are granted to the safety professional.

So, these two spectrums are intersecting, and that creates four different quadrants. Challenge means is when they have a firm view, but fewer decision rights. And then authority is when they have a firm view, but more decision rights. Sorry, I'm looking over at the chart here.

Influence, they have a more flexible view, but not very many decision rights. And alliance is when they have a flexible view, but they do have more decision rights. So, can we just go quickly through those? Like, so challenge, let's start with that.

They hold a firm view, but not very many decision rights. I imagine this is the quadrant people don't want to be in.

- Well, I think this is the quadrant that many safety professionals find themselves in. And the purpose of this categorization was to say like, you need to think about how you're approaching your role really carefully. It's a really challenging role. I'm sure we'll talk about the complexity of the role, but safety professionals typically have very few decision rights in their organization. So, most of the role of a safety professional and the impact that a safety professional has is through influencing the decisions and actions of other people, not so much through formal decision-making like what happens down the line organization.

So, this idea of challenge is where the safety professional holds a very firm view of what should happen in a particular circumstance, maybe that's the view that's aligned with what the safety regulation requires, and the safety professional sees one way to do something, to achieve something, to meet something. However, they have no decision rights over that particular decision.

You know, I think we should engage this piece of equipment for this particular task. That's the only way I can see it working safely. It's not my job to acquire that piece of equipment, but I'm going to go and challenge the person in the business who is responsible for making that decision and sort of go head to head on that. So, there's going to be a winner and there's going to be a loser.

And that's the space that I think much of the research into the safety profession, you know, that it came prior to my PhD had kind of really focused on that being the role, you know, that one of challenge. Sort of concluded that that's not a really constructive place to be for both the credibility, the relationship, and moving the organization forward for the achievement of all of the organization's operational objectives.

So, that's that space. So, we want to come up with other ways that safety people can relate to others in the organization.

- Okay. So, staying on, because it occurs to me one of these, like, decision rights can be an external thing, whereas the safety professional's views whether they're held firmly or more flexibly is something you can control yourself. So, let's say that we're still in a position where, as a safety professional, you don't have a lot of decision rights, but you do have a flexible view.

So, what difference does that make? How does that influence your work?

- Yeah. So, we categorize that as influence. And this is the space that I think safety people want to move in from challenge to influence. And that's where, again, we don't hold the decision rights that we want to have an impact on, but we do have a flexible view in how we might achieve the outcomes we want, where we're really passionate and motivated around making things safer, but we're open-minded for how that might be achieved.

And we also understand that the organization doesn't just have to achieve its safety objectives. It also has to achieve other organizational and operational objectives. So, there may be better ways of doing things that are also safe that the safety person may not initially be thinking of. And so this would change the approach to the relational approach in the organization too to the person who we are hoping to influence.

And we undertake more humble inquiry, more engagement, more problem definition, more solution option sort of discussion and co-designing ways forward. So, really in that space to say, you know, I think we need to do something different, but I'm completely open-minded to what we do along the way towards making things to a level of safety that we need them to be at.

So, I think for a long time, the idea of the safety person as the safety cop, so to speak, which was there's one rule book and there's one way to do things, and I'm not interested in your perspective and I'm not interested in your goals and objectives, my job is to make sure that you follow these things. That's just creating an alternate perspective on, I guess, tradition around the role.

- Okay. And then we've talked about not having a lot of decision rights. In your experience, are many safety professionals in the position where they're on the other side of the spectrum that they are given a fair number of decision rights?

- I think in relation to the things that really matter for changing the shape of safety risk in an organization, I don't think safety professionals hold very many decision rights at all. And I'm not even sure that safety professionals are engaged in a lot of the decisions that they should be in an organization. Like, you know, I'm not aware of a head of safety that gets a say in the appointment of a CEO of a company. I'm not aware of a safety professional that gets involved in the determining view over which contract did you use for a task, how to design, you know, a work site, you know, how many staff to have on a particular shift.

And so there's all these decisions around resources and goals and capability and leadership in an organization that impact safety that the safety professional has, well, definitely no decision rights over and very little decision input either. There is some.

Obviously, a normal company's safety management system will describe certain decision authorities. Usually like the safety person can decide safety training requirements, how an incident should be classified. They may even get to sign off on projects through project milestone gates and things like that. So, there is some sign-offs and some things to decide, but it's really, really limited. And again, a lot of the previous publications around the industry was all about trying to give safety professionals more formal authority.

And then when you look into safety as an emergent property of the way that the organization functions, the only solution to that is basically to make your head of safety the CEO. Because really ultimately when you start going down that slippery slope of what decision rights would a safety professional need to have, you end up with a conclusion that it's to achieve it through formal authority, it would have to be almost every operational decision in the business.

- So then the question begs, do you think that that...I mean, I'm pretty sure we're pretty far from that now. If you could wave a magic wand, do you think that would be the way to go, or do you think that's just pushing it too far and it's more...?

- I'm a bit more pragmatic than that. I think organizations function the way they do and all around the world they function... I mean, I've been surprised working all around the world just how similar organizations are run. It's not the solution you need, you need a management structure to make management decisions. And so it really then goes, well, what is the role of the safety professional and how does the role relate to management?

And, you know, it needs to be more of a team player while holding a thumb on the scale of the side of the business for safety, right? So, it is there to exert a little bit of pressure in a very constructive way and a very supportive way for the organization.

- Okay. So, now just to finish up with this, with the chart and the quadrants, on the side where the safety professional holds more decision rights, what differentiates between if that safety professional has a firm point of view or a flexible point of view? What difference would that make in that situation?

- Yeah. We call that alliance in relationships. You know, I think it's interesting...power is an interesting thing. And Charles Perroud said that power is an issue in safety more important than culture. There's a whole bunch of things that we haven't really considered in safety science around the role of power in organizations. And this is what we're talking about here around authority and influence.

It's like we call it decision rights, but it's like who has the power in the organization and that power differential. And we find a lot of very subservient safety teams who are in these real parent-child relationships between senior line management. And we might talk about that, but that's not a great space to be in. So, the idea of alliance is where the safety professional gets more power by giving more power away.

So, this last conversation we had about authority is like a power grab. And, you know, you can achieve some things in the short-term, but if you're trying to impact things in your organization through authority, the best you can hope for is compliance. That's kind of the best you can hope for.

People begrudgingly going and doing something that they don't want to do because you've got the power over them. So, it's not sustainable, it's not hugely impactful. So, this idea of alliance, which is how can the safety person be...I mean, we called it the friend, right? Like, in these two sides of the equation, we kind of talked about enemy and friend of people in the organization.

How can the safety professional go, you know, we need to make this safer, and I understand that we need to also achieve other operational goals. So, I'm really interested into what, into what you are trying to achieve before I execute my formal decision rights because I can be flexible. You know, like I can be flexible. So, if a project needs to go through a project gate and it needs to have 10 criteria satisfied and it's only got 9, I can go and say, okay, we're missing this one thing.

It's not a super high risk. What's going to be the impact if I delay it? It's going to basically blow out the budget right at the start. And I go, okay, well, okay, I can sign this off with 9 of the 10 things because I can see the bigger picture here in the overall achievement of the operational goals of the business and the trade-off impact by me just going, no, it hasn't satisfied it, it doesn't go through is going to impact the business and it's also going to impact my relationship with that team going forward, whereas if we have this view more of alliance and everyone in the business is an ally and we're all on the same team and we're all trying to achieve the same things, then that little investment in being flexible around how I might do something whilst not, you know, materially increasing the safety risk in the business, does materially increase my socially-constructed power in the organization.

I've become very powerful because of my flexibility in a lot of ways and my understanding of the different...my empathy for the different, I guess, plights of people in the organization.

- Yeah, it occurs to me...when you were talking about being the safety cop, I was thinking, "Man, that must be exhausting." And it would be because you'd have to do it continuously, whereas with this kind of alliance building, people I imagine then come to you, you know, you've created partnerships basically, - And it can't be everywhere.

So, an average organization in a high-hazard sort of environment with an operational footprint will have between 1 to 100 to 1 to 500 safety professionals for other roles in the organization. So, you got somewhere between maybe 0.1%, 0.2% of staff to 1% of staff in your safety team. And so you can only ever be involved in 1% of things that are going on in the business, even if you're full-time involved in things in the business.

So, 99% of activity is going to happen in your organization without the eyes and ears of a safety person purely through available time. So, on one hand, it makes the choices that a safety professional makes about how they spend their time really, really important. And on the other hand, it also means that you can't have a compliance-based approach because you just can't mobilize the surveillance that would be required to do that.

You'd almost have to have a one-for-one, you know, one safety person on the shoulder of every one other person in the business if you were going to try to do that reliably and effectively.

- All right. Let's move into the second sort of sub-research question, which is, what is the professional identity of a safety... Yes. Nope. That's what it says. What is the professional identity of a safety professional? What are the important differences because you're using professional very specifically here between something like certification and professionalization?

- Yeah. I think, so this identity came up out of the, like you said...when you go into doing a PhD, the idea of doing a doctorate is to create new knowledge. You're trying to understand what the current state of that knowledge is and how you can build on it. So, you never quite know what you're going to find as you start reading through and finding gaps in the literature and themes in the literature.

And also then when you are undertaking your sort of data collection, what are you going to find? And so I was never intended to do this paper on professional identity as part of the PhD, but there was so much written really, I don't know, straightforward that safety professionals were really challenged with what is their role. They had a whole bunch of different beliefs and motivations, and I guess this idea of professional identity was one that had never really been explored in the safety profession, yet people made a lot of commentary about the knowledge, attitudes, values, motivations of safety people.

And there'd been professional identity work done in lots of professions. So, lawyers, teachers, accountants, engineers, higher education professionals, and what types of people go into that profession and what are their experiences, attributes, beliefs, motives, and values? And so I thought it'd be a great opportunity to talk to some safety professionals and see if we could come up with a bit of a working model of the identity of the profession.

How do people identify with the profession, and what are the common characteristics of safety professionals? So, I went in and spoke to a bunch of safety professionals and really tried to understand how they viewed the world.

- I mean, what did you discover briefly, I suppose, since you've got a whole thesis on it?

- Yeah, look, really briefly. So, the real challenge, again, I mentioned it's a very complex role and one of the best...I'll go back to go forward. One of the best pieces of work that was done in my literature review was done by Professor David Woods after the Columbia Space Shuttle accident.

He was part of the independent review board into the incident as the safety expert. And, you know, they were quite critical in that review during the shuttle program of the NASA Safety Organization. And so, you know, NASA really engaged him after that investigation to basically ask him, how would you design the safety organization? And the work never got finished, but he came up with these two real challenging tensions that safety professional needs to be both involved and independent.

So, on one hand, I need to be sleeves rolled up, hands dirty in the operation, really involved in all of the operational decisions and that, but I also need to be at the same time, independent, I need to break out of the group think, I need to bring a fresh perspective. I need to be sort of socially, cognitively, organizationally a little bit separate. And so that's a constant sort of trade-off that needs to be made is how close am I, but how independently can I think about these issues?

And then the other spectrum was being informed and informative. So, I need to deeply understand the work of the organization and what's going on, and I need to also bring new insights and be informative and see things in a different way. So, he kind of said...while the work didn't finish, it was really challenging. And when I looked at professional identity, I found these real tensions play out in the mindset of safety people, which led me to kind of conclude that the identity is really confusing and it's really paradoxical.

So, like, you know, safety people identify with its managers in the organization that are accountable for safety. It's managers who make the decisions there. They're the ones who are responsible for the work and their teams. And at the same time, as a safety person, I should be the one that draws the line. So management should only have a say in what happens as long as I think what they're doing is safe enough. So, it's really like you can have the authority and the autonomy to manage your business as long as you do it the way that I want you to do it.

And there was a few other really challenging paradoxes around enabling people, but also making sure that there's a lot of standards and bureaucracy and rules in place. So, it was like in a lot of spaces around the identity, it was very confusing. And I think a lot of that's because the profession is operating in a very complex environment and lots of shades of gray.

It's also quite a young profession if we think about the formalities of it. Most of the education pathways for professionals are mostly useless and unhelpful in setting them up to be effective practitioners. And I also just think that we haven't really sat down and defined clarity in the role, which has enabled the profession to take on a more consistent identity and a more clear identity.

- When you mention different paths of training, is there a lot of standardization? If I get, you know, safety certification in one country or at one school versus another, how much conformity or variation have you seen in your experience?

- Yeah, look, there's not a lot of standards around this. Like, the International Network of Safety and Health Practitioner Organizations, or INSHPO, published in 2015, a global capability framework that about 12 countries were signatories to. That was a start and some countries adopted parts of that framework to do it. I think the framework is significantly lacking.

And it's eight years old, but it was even at the time, a significant compromise just to get countries on board. But there's no real standards, there's no consistent standards across tertiary education, across professional association accreditation, what some companies are doing internally, and then what other institutions like IOSH and others are doing.

So, everyone's kind of just out there doing their own thing of what they think's best, which is fine, but it's inconsistent with how we do teaching, engineering, law, accounting, and some of these other professions. However, at the same time, maybe that's not the direction to take the profession because it is a neo-generalist profession like human resources and information technology and these other types of professions that, you know, maybe going down the pathway, putting people in a box isn't the right thing to do for the profession.

And that's a little bit how my ideas have evolved since I've finished my PhD, more away from going down a fixed curriculum pathway.

- Interesting. I'll come back to that. So, the third sub-research question was, what are the objectives of safety professional work activities? And when you were discussing this, how much variation did you see in how people answered? I imagine, you know, not everyone sees it the same way.

- No, not at all. And the way I researched this, and this was the core of my research, it was sort of like a long what was called a longitudinal ethnographic case study. And that's a fancy way of saying I followed safety people around for nine months and asked them about. So over time, because I wanted to understand, you know, what I wanted to know is what was initiating the work that safety people were doing?

And then, you know, what were they trying to achieve with the work, and how were they going about the work, and who was the stakeholders and customers involved and so on. So, I really wanted to understand the reality of a day in the life in practice. And I wanted to do it over time because I wanted to see how certain organizational events, like if a workplace had an incident, how did that sort of change the tasks and activities and that.

So, I wanted to do it over time. And so that's what I did, sort of spent nine months following a dozen or so safety professionals, interviewing them every week or two about, you know, what are they currently working on? What's initiated the work? What are they trying to achieve? How are they going about it? And that was just to try to understand the realities of day-to-day work. And, you know, in some ways, that was sort of scary.

And it was also scary because of what I saw of a lack of goal-directed risk-reduction activity. I'm doing this because we've got this issue in the business and undertaking this is going to reduce the risk to our frontline staff, like what we call goal-directed risk reduction activity, which ultimately you sort of is what you want your safety team to be there too, is to facilitate and enable a lower level of risk than otherwise would be there.

And I guess at the same time, Dr. Drew Rae, and I had published the paper, "Safety Work versus the Safety of Work," and we really just saw a safety profession that was up to its eyeballs in safety work and had in a lot of ways lost sight of how it directly contributed to the safety of work.

So, that was kind of the long story short from that year of research.

- So, I did interview Dr. Drew Rae and had a great conversation about safety clutter. Is that related in that sense, like the safety work?

- Yeah. So, we wrote those papers in the same year or around the same time. So, safety clutter is really safety work that doesn't contribute to operational safety outcomes or the safety of the work. So, safety clutter is sort of a subset of safety work. And it's the subset of safety work that's unhelpful. Yeah.

So yeah. And Drew was one of my supervisors in my PhD, and he is also the co-host of "The Safety of Work Podcast." So, Drew's an amazing thinker in this space.

- Yes. Yeah. I noticed when we were having our conversation. Okay. So, another sub-question was, what is the current role of safety professionals within organizations? How did you find people answering that at the time, and have you seen any shifts since then?

- Yeah, and I sort of lumped the way...so the study that I just mentioned sort of answered a couple of those sub-questions around the objectives and the work itself. I think what we've got now is...and hopefully, part of my contribution in some small way has been to give people language and ways of critically reflecting on what they're doing.

So, this idea of safety work versus the safety of work is quite popular language now in safety, is talked about a lot. And I think that helps safety teams and organizations critically reflect on the things that their team are doing.

So, it's got to start with changing the dialogue that happens inside organizations. And I think we've given people the language to do that. By introducing the term safety clutter, we've given organizations permission to talk about things that aren't adding value. In the past, I think safety was so...organizations were so politically sensitive to the moral pursuit around safety.

That if you were someone who questioned any safety practice in the business, you were automatically seen as someone who didn't care enough about safety. So, if you put your hand up and said, I don't want to be audited next week because these audits don't add any value, then you were like a recalcitrant leader in the organization. Or I think these incident investigations are a waste of time. We keep coming up with rubbish actions. And organizations were hypersensitive to any critical feedback on their safety management regime.

And that really stagnated and limited all of our progress. Like, I think we've had two decades of stagnation inside industry because of our inability to have open, safe conversations about, is anything we're doing in safety adding the value that we intended to add.

And if not having the ambition, the audacity to make some wholesale changes. And now we're just starting now to see organizations making some very big changes in the way they approach safety. And I'm kind of excited by that.

- Do you have any examples or trends, I suppose, that you're seeing?

- Yeah. So organizations that...you know, many things that we do, we do because we've always done them. And they talk about them being the most dangerous words in business, you know, why do we do this? Because we always have. And so things like, you know, all incidents need to be investigated. Well, do they? Like, if you have 20,000, 30,000 investigations a year, then it's going to take you 200 people to investigate those incidents.

Maybe that's not the best use of 200 people's time in the organization running around investigating, you know, first aid injuries or something like that. And we're seeing organizations just blanket, remove those, remove administrative actions from their things, significantly restructure their safety management systems and their compliance expectations on people.

You know, introduce learning practices around work and teams, and I'm sure you've spoken to a number of people on the podcast and talking about some of these practices. So, I think these things are all great. These things are all moving us in the right direction, but I guess it starts with organizations being deeply reflective of, what are we currently doing to impact the level of safety in the business. And how confident are we what we're doing is having that intended impact?

- You're recalling when I talked with Dr. Ivan Pupulidy, who kind of pioneered learning reviews, is that instead of investigating in terms of the impact of the investigation, investigating in terms of how much can we learn from this. You know, if there's a simple mechanical failure, there's not a lot to be learned. But if there's a complex network of incidents and influences, then there could be quite a bit to learn.

- Yeah. And just briefly, as I say, we talk to organizations around the difference between risk assurance and learning. So, if there's a mechanical failure, even if it's a high consequence, then you find out what happened and you find out if you've got that value mode somewhere else in your business and you assure against that risk. So, you always want to undertake risk assurance activity across your business, but, you know, that's not necessarily a huge learning opportunity.

It could be. It could be. It could tell you a lot about your procurement practices and your supply chain and a whole bunch of things. But, you know, I guess what we would also do with organizations is encourage them to define for themself what they consider a high-value learning opportunity and use that as a filter over events that happen in the business, maybe as opposed to, yeah, what the severity of the consequence was.

- Now, the last sort of sub-question here is, what is the future role of a safety professional through the theoretical lens of resilience engineering, safety 2, and safety differently? And I have to stop and ask as a newbie, as a non-safety professional, I've discussed safety 2 and safety differently with people, but resilience engineering, that's the first time that I've encountered that.

So, can you quickly define that?

- So, we sort of talk about five...the collection of new view safety theories, I sort of like to include in that net sort of five core theories that sort of overlap a little bit on a Venn diagram, but it's basically just five individual research teams and people. So, we start with high-reliability organization theory in the '80s. We then get resilience engineering in the early 2000s. We then get safety 1 and safety 2.

We get safety differently and we get human and organizational performance. Now, there are sort of five theoretical perspectives around safety, that like I said, they overlap, but they all offer something, you know, a little bit unique. The reason that resilience engineering came about after HRO was because Professor David Woods and Erik Hollnagel and Sidney Dekker and Bob Weirs and others, Nancy Leveson, they all got together and said, okay, it's fine to have these principles in HRO theory, but what we really need is a set of actionable tactics.

Like, this should be an engineering discipline. We should have ways of designing our organizations, designing roles, designing technologies, designing the interfaces and interrelationships in our organization that create reliability and resilience in safety.

So, ultimately, this is an engineering, engineering problem, not necessarily in hardware, but this is a design issue. You know, how do we set our organizations up? So, they created resilience engineering in the hope that we would create a really large toolkit of methodologies and blueprints, if you like, for organizations to organize themselves. Didn't quite play out like that because we had, you know, people continuing to play in the conceptual theoretical world.

And then, you know, we safety 1, safety 2, safety differently, HOP, and those things, we're still largely doing conceptual work around these areas as opposed to operational work and practical work. But I picked resilience engineering as the frame to look through for this for two reasons. One is because I really wanted to collaborate with Professor David Woods who had done that piece of work I mentioned earlier, the four I's of a safety organization.

And I also want this to be quite tactical, this part of my PhD thesis. Because up until that point, I'd pointed out a lot of challenges with the profession, but hadn't offered a whole lot of solutions. So, this chapter, which is an open-access paper that anyone can go and download was designed to be maybe laying out what are the actual tasks and activities that a safety organization can perform to enable greater levels of resilience, reliability, and safety in their organization.

So, this was sort of the role blueprint, if you like.

- What is the future role...and it also has the word future in there, so what's the future role of a safety professional through those lens? Like, where's the movement, where's the change, I guess? The change you hope to see.

- There's a lot that safety teams need to need to do. I guess, and this is probably a whole separate conversation, but just to be clear, is, you know, the purpose that I gave the profession was to create foresight about the changing shape of risk and facilitate action before people get harmed.

So, this idea that the safety professionals got to have an understanding of what is the current risk landscape in my organization today in real-time, and what does that mean for the risk landscape next week, next month, next year. What trajectory are we on as an organization, and what action needs to be facilitated to make adjustments before people get hurt?

And so it's this idea that we really need to be far more centered in what's happening today and proactive about what's happening in the future. And the challenge that we face as a profession is that most safety professional activity is reactive, or it's planned and scripted. So, things we do is responding to incidents or nonconformances or regulator or customer requests, or it's a planned meeting, a planned audit, a planned inspection, or some other planned activity.

When I talk with safety professionals, I say, look, to be really effective in your role, or to be effective or to do the best role you can is you should have 50% of your week on Monday completely unallocated, and completely unallocated for white space. And that's the space that you need to spend roaming your organization, connecting with people, understanding what's going on in real-time, investigating weak signals and other sort of things that are happening, getting involved in work planning activities, and real-time decision-making and things like that.

And when I talk to safety professionals around that, mostly they just say, that's just a pipe dream. I'm 40 hours a week, wall-to-wall meetings all week every week. And so I guess when we talk about the future of the profession aligned with that role purpose, I've come up with a whole bunch of activities that safety people should do to do those things that I've...you know, to be focused on those things that I've just mentioned, but it has to start with having more space.

And that means stopping doing a whole bunch of things that safety people are currently doing on the safety work, safety clutter side of their role.

- It sounds to me like a qualitative audit, walking around and just talking to people and seeing what's what.

- Yeah. Well, look, Professor Andrew Hopkins, who's done a lot of reviews, a lot of sociological reviews into major accidents, I like when he did his work on the Moura mine disaster, which was in Queensland, Australia in the '90s, he sort of concluded that that site had passed a whole bunch of audits, right? Lots of green lights, lots of audits, lots of activities, but given the situation on-site, he sort of said that any experienced person that walked on-site with a blank piece of paper and spoke to a few people about what some of the key issues were would've left in half a day knowing exactly what needed to be done.

And I've done a number of organizational reviews where companies have come to me and said, look, something's not quite right, but we don't know what it is, and I've just kind of gone, okay, trust me. I'm going to spend four or five days, kick some tires, talk to people, and I'll come and tell you what's going on. And there needs to be much more of that in the safety profession, just, you know, eyeballing things, engaging with people, looking at things.

And like I say, roaming your organization, looking for increasing signs of risk or signs of increasing risk, and facilitating conversation and action around that.

- Do you think that safety professionals will need to...when you said, you started with, trust me. Do you think that...I know you can't answer for all organizations, but typically, do organizations trust safety professionals to take care of things? And should that white space, should that kind of activity be something that the safety professional says, okay, this is what I need to do.

Do you think there'd be a lot of pushback or...?

- Look, I think it is a real challenge to get permission from an organization to not generate like visible, productive output, right? So, the thing about doing an investigation and doing an audit and producing a report is you can sort of see the tangible activity that's being performed. And, you know, one of the comments in one of the interviews that I had with someone is a senior safety person said, look, every week, the most valuable part of my role is the 20 conversations that I have that hold this organization together, share information across organizational boundaries, get ahead of things that can cause us problems, but that's 20 hours I'm spending on the phone and just talking one-on-one with people that the organization can't see.

So, the organization gets upset when the report that was due on Wednesday turns up on Thursday, but it can't see the most valuable part of my role. And I think that is a real challenge for organizations, in general, takes really strong safety leadership and really tight alignment between the safety organization and the line organization, the executive. And this gets us all the way back to the very start of our conversation today around very few organizations actually have this discussion.

You know, what is the most impactful thing that we can have our safety team doing? You know, how do we design these roles? How do we support these roles? And then how do we relate to the safety organization? Some organizations are doing a great job. I did some work with NASA, and I mentioned them earlier, you know, how they operate their safety organization now is incredible following the shuttle program.

I think it's amazing. And there's also other organizations with really great safety leaders that have managed to shape a really trusted, impactful safety organization. So, I'm seeing a lot of progress is probably the way to put it. When I started my PhD in 2015 or 2014, I was really much more concerned about the state of the profession than I am now, which is a good thing.

- Great. And that actually leads into my next question, which is, what do you see for either the near or the distant future of the safety profession? Where do you see things going, good or bad? Hopefully, good. So, I think the safety team needs to be far more involved in building operational capability in the business.

So, this idea that, you know, what is the core capability for the organization to perform its hazardous work, equipment, capabilities of people, not just in, you know, can they do the safety processes, like risk assessments and things like that, but how capable are they to perform their core operational work? And how can the safety team support that, whether we call it operational capability or operations excellence, or things like that, making safety be deeply integrated into the core functioning of the business?

I think that needs to happen, or I think the safety profession risks being marginalized. Early in career, I also was responsible for quality management. And I think quality management, and this might upset some listeners, but you know, the quality function is still present in things like healthcare, pharmaceuticals, and industries like that. But it's mainly a regulatory compliance profession.

It's not a production quality type of profession. And I think the quality profession just ended up marginalized focusing on ISO 9001 and the quality manuals and their companies were like, this team's not deeply integrated into my operations. Operations don't see the quality department as adding, you know, great value in improving the quality of our product.

And, you know, maybe it's an unnecessary cost. And we've seen what was a very strong profession in the '90s almost disappear largely from organizations. You know, in the '90s, companies had directors of quality on their executive team and things like that. But we rarely ever come across a company with a central quality department anymore. You'll have specific quality roles in projects in facilities that are doing product testing and regulatory compliance, but the profession's gone.

So, I think the fear for safety is that if safety doesn't continue to demonstrate the impact, not just on safety risk reduction, but also on operational improvement, then maybe companies go, maybe I don't need 500 safety people in my company.

- It's a bit of a cautionary tale.

- May well be, yes. May well be.

- What area of study or innovation and safety are you most excited about these days?

- So, areas of study and innovation, I think technology plays a huge role going forward. So, there's an argument, and I don't know if you got to this with with Drew Rae, you can make an argument that, you know, more advances in safety have been created by engineers than by safety people.

So, engineers that have designed better cranes, better work technologies, better control systems, better machine, person interfaces, and guarding. A lot of people got really hurt interacting with technology and equipment as late as kind of the '70s and '80s. And I think engineering's done a great job of just making the inherent technology equipment that we work with safer.

You know, even our vehicles that we drive every day are much safer than the Holden Kingswoods that we drove in the '80s. So, we know that. So, it's a huge contribution and arguably a greater contribution than, you know, safety people that have run around and built safety systems and safety procedures and things like that. So, I think technology is going to keep playing a role.

You know, if we want to free up safety professional time, like I've mentioned, you know, we use in my organization ChatGPT-4 across a whole bunch of qualitative data. It took us four weeks to train it to produce better thematic analysis and better diagnostic summaries than I could do in 15 seconds.

So, I think that there's a huge opportunity to use technology to reduce risk. There's also a huge opportunity to use technology to free up time and space in safety teams to do some of the things that I've been saying. So, you know, that's, I guess the direction that I'm most excited in. All of the paper pushing and stuff that safety people do, let AI do that and, you know, let safety professionals do the uniquely human things that AI can't do, which is interact with people, understand the work, and eyeball things.


- Excellent. I would agree. So, I have a few questions that I ask every guest near the end of the interview. One of them is, what is the most important human relationship or human-centered skill that tomorrow's safety professionals should develop or, you know, people going into the profession?

- Human-centered skill. I think the ability to constructively disagree with someone. So, this idea of, we mentioned challenge, but challenging with a very rigid view is not helpful for the relationship, is not helpful for problem-solving. So, you know, we've talked for a long time about negotiation and conflict resolution and those things, but we just talked about having important conversations through constructive dialogue.

So, how can you have a conversation with another person who sees the world very differently from you, but you have the empathy and the time and the respect to explore their view of the world? Help them see your view of the world in a very non-judgmental way and find points of similarity and collectively design ways forward.

So I think the most important skill is the ability to disagree with someone, and at the same time as you're disagreeing, strengthen your relationship and move your organization forward. That would be the skill.

- Yeah. Yeah. That would be...it's challenging but valuable. If you could go back in time to the beginning of your safety career, is there a piece of advice that you would give young David?

- Young David.

- Young David. Younger David.

- Look, I think be far more engaged with the academic world all the way through my career, and far more attention to, to safety science and other sort of adjacent sciences, organizational studies and things like that. There's so much knowledge out there that has been tested and validated and also dismissed as well. You know, in many ways, lots of things we do is based on, you know, psychology studies between the 30s and the 60s and things like that, and we've just never changed them.

So, I spent about a decade after I'd done my first master's degree disengaged from safety science. You know, I was a very senior safety manager. I was off doing an MBA in finance and economics. I was, you know, on the business corporate kind of world. I felt like I knew everything I needed to know about safety because I'd done an undergraduate and a postgraduate.

And it wasn't till, I guess, I reconnected with safety science that I realized that I'd been quite absent from understanding that knowledge base. So, I would definitely encourage any professional to be closely connected with the academic world, not because we all want to be academics, but because there's lots of people out there that are thinking really hard about this and are actually conducting, you know, really important research that can just make our life easier if we do the things that we know are going to work.

- So, how can our listeners learn more...I guess that actually answers my next question, which is how can our listeners learn more about the topics in our discussion? Are there any resources that you recommend, books, websites, anything like that?

- Yeah, look, I mean, most of my information is available in different shapes and forms. Like, you mentioned at the start, and I mentioned through the episode, I do do a podcast, "The Safety of Work," where Drew and I sort of get safety research papers and try to break them down and make them practical for people.

And that was one of the conclusions of my Ph.D. that the safety profession didn't have a safety science narrative justifying its work. So, the podcast is there to...you know, if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. So, that's what created the podcast in 2019. And so, that's got a lot of different things that we've spoken about. We've reviewed some of the papers that we've spoken about today through the episodes on that podcast. But I think just there's so much information out there that it's really hard if you're just passively scrolling through things.

I like a couple of books. I like "Paper Safe" by Greg Smith. He's an Australian-based lawyer and safety professional that talks about the triumph for bureaucracy over safety management. It's a really good read from a legal perspective around just doing things on paper for safety and sort of breaks down a lot of the myths around we need to do all this stuff for compliance. So, I think that's a good read.

And then I think just broadly read around contemporary safety ideas. And then the last encouragement will be if you're going to do something in your business, like if you're going to run a leadership program or a cultural program, or do any sort of change improvement in your business, just take some time on Google Scholar, or take some time somewhere, or send me a LinkedIn message, and just say, is there anything I should be aware of in relation to, you know, going forward and doing something like this?

Because there's not going to be a lot that a safety professional's going to want to do in their role that someone hasn't written a book about.

- Good to know. Okay. And again, you've answered part of the question. We'll link to the podcast. Where can our listeners find you on the web? So, you mentioned LinkedIn.

- Yeah, LinkedIn is a pretty much the...all roads lead back to LinkedIn. It seems to be the easiest way to coordinate and network. So, that's easy. I mean, judging by the amount of people who ring me, Nigerian Princes and people wanting to offer me money, and that judging by the amount of phone calls I get and emails I get, I don't think it's that hard to find me on the internet.

So, I'm sure, yeah, reach out and I'll always try to engage and get back to everyone.

- Well, that's all the time we have for today. Thanks for listening, and thanks so much, David, for your time and your ideas.

- Thank you.

- As always, I'd like to thank the "Safety Labs by Slice" team, always a team, always professional. Bye for now.

Dr David Provan

CEO Forge Works, Founder Safety Futures, Host 'The Safety of Work' Podcast & Safety Exchange YouTube Channel.

Find out more about David’s Safety Consultancy work: Forge Works and Safety Futures

The podcast David co-hosts: The Safety of Work

David’s recommends Paper Safe by Greg Smith