About a decade ago I was introduced to the three perspectives of safety management. They are People, Systems and Organisation. I don’t know the origin of the concept.
Whoever I owe a debt of gratitude to, I’ve found it to be a great way of ensuring that a safety management program is holistic in nature and therefore stands a greater chance of success. I took this concept and created a ‘Searchlight’ analogy where each safety perspective (or searchlight) is a different way of looking at things. Each searchlight sheds new light on the complex subject of safety. Switch any light off and you will almost certainly miss and important part of the whole. For a long time I believed the model originated with Prof. James Reason but I now understand he doesn’t believe it to be his, although he certainly compared two of the three perspectives long before I was introduced to the concept.
Each perspective makes a simple assumption on what causes harm in the workplace. The People perspective assumes that it is the attitude of the individual that dominates whether they go home safely or injure themselves or a colleague. The perspective suggests someone with a poor safety outlook will find a way to harm themselves, even in the most well designed and well managed workplace. It also infers that a person with a good safety outlook will survive all but the very worst of workplaces.
In the System perspective, the assumption is that a workplace can be made inherently safe if designed and managed properly. It says “Good engineers should be able to imbed engineering controls and supporting procedures to make sure that the workplace is foolproof”.
The Organisational perspective assumes that everything will sort itself out, and whatever needs to be done will be done if the organisation has the resolve to deliver it and provide a suitable business structure and adequate resources.
I’ve certainly found in my experience that a failure to switch on a searchlight when putting together or reviewing a safety management system almost always causes me to overlook something that’s hiding in the shadows.
As to the current status of the safety profession, it seems to me we have a better understanding of how to apply the System perspective than either of the other two. This begs the question “Do we keep doing what we understand best… or find ways to pick up the available gains from the areas we’ve yet to master?”