When thinking about safety, it is common to think of it in terms of the absence of injury, relief from negative events or, simply when there are no incidents crossing a threshold where loss occurs. Many trade publications define safety with a few key words: reducing the probability and the possibility of harm to an acceptable level with the understanding that in many cases the acceptable level is governed by a particular industry, or the expectation of the organization you work in. Related in thought is that many practitioners look to drive safety programs that stop loss from happening based on past events or the recognized risks residing in the work system. It is not wrong thinking, but thinking that continues to be challenged when new and surprising loss occurs. As technology changes it is a safe bet that safety risk is elevated. As human factors change it is certain that risk to the work system is being introduced differently than yesterday; and as organizational distractions increase, you can be sure new threats are impacting your safety performance. Controlling process variation is not a new concept but fundamental in any effective safety management system.
In quality circles, a basic thought shared in many publications leads toward driving perfection. In the book Flawless, the author writes "Having zero errors and being flawless should be the one overriding objective for quality." Excerpts from the book relate that resolving issues and focusing on process deviations alone is wrong thinking and that there should be an increased emphasis on what it takes to build products and processes that are robust. In essence, it is a degree of a mindset shift and robustness of the management system.
In addition, many successful operational effectiveness programs have been built solely on the idea that reducing variability and stabilizing the manufacturing process supports the objective of producing world-class results. This is supported by the ever increasing global movement toward Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma concepts and is evident in almost all highly successful organizations. Applying this thought in building a desired safety management system and supporting culture, maybe the best question to ask is "can an organization leave so much variation within the work system that workers are actually leveraged to make poor decisions while performing their work?"
In the book, Human Error Reduction and Safety Management, Dan Peterson writes that "human error is involved in every accident and there are many reasons behind this behavior." Peterson goes on to say that "when incidents occur, it's the result of safety system failure and human error." The worker who chooses to do an unsafe act is directly linked to the safety management system he or she resides.