Safety based on people, as the solution

The challenge ahead is how we can responsibly unleash more of the human potential for detection, intelligence, imagination, innovation, and collaborative capacities around safety.
By Daniel Hummerdal.

When it comes to safety, you don’t have a people problem. People don’t come to work to have accidents or to get injured. They come to work with intentions to get a job done, and perhaps even with hopes to have a nice day at work.  

Nevertheless, when it comes to safety we often treat people like a problem to control – telling them what to do and when and how.  My question for you is: Is such an approach likely to harness the talent and realise the potential of the people that you’ve surrounded yourself with? 

An example from my own experience:  I ran some focus groups in an Australian mine and an issue arose over working (driving) at night when it’s difficult to see.  

I raised this in a toolbox talk with employees and straight afterwards one of the truck drivers came to me offering his help. “I’ve got a master’s degree in lighting, I can help.”  The truckie had been defined by his role, but his potential was so much greater than that. 

Could it be that in looking to solve a health and safety problem, holding people accountable to well defined roles and responsibilities is limiting their contribution and the collective potential of your organisation?  

To reverse the situation, organisations can start treating people like intelligent collaborators, as if people were the solution (and not a problem to control). This has several consequences. 

It means that a leader does not have all the answers. Faced with a challenge, an issue, and desire to improve performance, the leader who wants to realise the potential of their people is likely to ask: who cares about this?  

This shifts the role of the leader to one of facilitating solutions amongst the people who have a vested interest in the issue, rather than the leader trying to be the solution or impose their solution. Whether it works or not, the leader allows the organisation to move towards improved performance while engaging and realising people’s intellectual capacity in the process, with a higher likelihood of ownership no matter the outcome. 

This changes the organisational response to failure. If people are to be the solution the first question in the wake of failures should be about what people need to do a better job. 

Don’t try to fix people. Fix the work environment. If you want better decisions, make the decision-making environment better. 

If you want more responsibility and ownership, give more control and authority. And if you want more motivation, invest in mastery, autonomy and purpose.   

Another aspect that is likely to change is the realisation that people are the reason why you don’t have more accidents than you do. In practical terms this leads to greater curiosity in how normal work happens, to examining how people, alone or together, create safety in everyday situations – large and small – by adjusting their performance to conditions.  

The biggest threat in safety is not the non-compliant worker. The biggest threat is our belief in uniformity, and in external solutions. The challenge ahead is how we can responsibly unleash more of the human potential for detection, intelligence, imagination, innovation, and collaborative capacities. 


Daniel Hummerdal is a world-leading health and safety innovator.  He joined WorkSafe New Zealand on October 1, as Chief Advisor, Health and Safety Innovation. Daniel was deeply involved in the development and implementation of the Safety II and Safety Differently concepts. WorkSafe Chief Operating Officer Phil Parkes describes his appointment as “a coup for WorkSafe” saying traditional health and safety models need challenging and Daniel will “spark new approaches”. 

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