Complex Systems Safety Leadership Process©

Our work in helping to create injury-free work environments is complex.

There are three major areas of work that overlap to some extent. Depending on the work of the organization the emphasis may be different for the three areas of work.

Occupational Safety:  One area of our safety work relates to Occupational Safety. Here we experience acute incidents like slips, trips and falls. Some of these lead to deaths. This area of safety work has been around a long time and is well developed. The systems, process and equipment for this work are managed by those closest to the work itself. These are the operators and mechanics as well as the first-line supervisors and the safety people who are working with them. This work not only saves the people from injuries it saves the company about $40,000-50,000 per average OSHA Recordable injury. A powerful leading indicator I have found useful is the Safe Acts Audit which is a quick and simple way to asses the safety climate as it shifts around. This is not a punishment procedure.

Occupational Health:   A second area of our safety work relates to Occupational Health. Here we experience long-term, chronic problems. These can be related to low levels of exposures to toxic materials like asbestos, benzene and lead or repetitive motion problems like carpel tunnel syndrome and poor lifting positions. This area is newer than the Occupational Safety area and we are still learning a lot. As our workforce age, we will run into more Occupational Health problems. Often, by the time that we become aware of the problem, a large number of people have been impacted and the costs for remediation are very high, running into the millions of dollars. This work is best managed by those close to the work like operators, mechanics, clerical people, and health and safety experts. The leading indictors for this area of work are the discomforts experienced by the people doing the work, and also by researchers and experts who are studying large populations of people and can see trends and wider problems that are more subtle.

Process Safety:  A third area of our safety work relates to Process Safety. A lot of new work is developing in this area of safety. Here we have acute problems like spills, releases to the air and water, fires and explosions. There can also be chronic dimensions to this like very low levels of emissions to the environment that result in public health hazards. This area of safety work is best managed by the operators, mechanics, engineers, researchers and other scientists close to the work itself. When a Process Safety incident occurs the costs in terms of lives and money can be very, very big as British Petroleum can attest to. The leading indicators in this area of safety work are things like near misses and close calls. Leading indicators are also the adherence to standards like timelines to get things repaired, schedules, the reduction of backlogs on safety work orders, and timely inspections of relief valves and thickness measurements of vessels and pipelines.

leadership safety in the workplaceOverlap:  All three of these areas of safety are often lumped together as SHE, EHS or HSE. When we lump these all together we can miss things so I think it is useful to see these three overlapping, interacting areas of our safety and health work. There is some overlap between Occupational Safety and Occupational Health like the proper selection and use of respirators. There is some area of overlap between Occupational Health and Process Safety like preventing chronic exposures to toxic chemicals. There is some overlap between Process Safety and Occupational Safety like locating trailers and offices away from operating areas using large quantities of flammable and explosive materials.

There is also overlap among all three areas of our safety and health work. This is where the people issues and culture become important. Everything happens through people! We need to have strong, effective leadership in order to bring all the work together and do a solid job in this work. There are many safety consultants who are teaching leadership of safety using linear, top-down processes that do have a good impact. However, in my experience, these are hard to do, often cumbersome and very hard to sustain. This is because these people are trying to lead safety using linear processes that are suitable for complicated situations.

Interactivity:   All the interacting people and areas of safety and health are a complex system requiring different tools for successful leadership. Coming out of my studies of chaos and complexity science and my own experience in leading safety I have developed the complex Systems Safety Leadership Process©.

Complex systems often have a few simple rules that govern their behavior. The Three Simple Rules for The Complex

Systems Safety Leadership Process are;

  1. Share all information with everyone except private personal information.
  2. Build trust and interdependence among all the people.
  3. Help everyone see their part in and the importance of fulfilling the work of the organization successfully.

Building on these Three Simple Rules are the Four Steps to Safety Excellence which are:

  • Use the Process Enneagram© with the leaders of the organization to develop clarity, coherence and commitment to achieving safety excellence.
  • Together, walking around, openly talking and sharing information, listening, sharing and learning, fixing problems, improving the safety systems and processes and building on all the safety systems, processes and tools we already have to manage the safety work.
  • In doing this with integrity, we build trust and interdependence among all the people.
  • The result of this way of engaging with everyone results in having everyone pulling towards safety excellence and continuous safety performance improvement.

This may sound rather strange to many of you yet this is the process to lead all aspects of safety to achieve sustainable excellence in our performance. The work I did with the people at the DuPont Belle, WV and with New Zealand Steel mentioned in earlier blogs, show that this way of leading safety is proven, robust and sustainable.


Richard N Knowles, Ph.D., The Safety Sage

About Richard N. Knowles

© Richard N. Knowles and Safety Sage Blog, 2014. You may use this article on your blog, website or in your newsletter or magazine, provided that full and clear credit is given to author, Richard N Knowles, Ph.D of Safety Excellence for Business with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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