'It's complicated'

Safety consultant Dave Fennell explains why complex matters must be systematically simplified to provide a more targeted and effective approach in the OHS space

'It's complicated'
Complex matters must be systematically simplified to provide a more targeted and effective approach in the OHS space.
Dave Fennell

My first safety role, 34 years ago, was assigned to me with the encouraging statement “Safety is simple, you’ll do fine.” I was handed the book Practical Loss Control as the definitive reference manual. Glancing at the index appeared to confirm the simplicity … chapters on reporting, investigating, some stuff on procedures and communications. Hey, I’ve got this!

Delving into the chapters revealed more detail on these “simple” aspects of safety and I began to see a complexity within each of them. An investigation report is simple, but understanding all the factors contributing to the incident is more complex. Proactive reporting is simple, but the intricacies of the culture that supports reporting is more involved. Each chapter had the same revelation. Even more interesting than the details within these components was the interrelation between them. 

Safety can be very effective when we understand the complex nature of it but find ways to make it simple for supervisors and workers to understand it, then develop supporting tools and processes that are easy to use. Unfortunately, some organizations take the complex nature of safety, and with good intentions, produce convoluted and confusing processes. We need to be clear on the subtle distinction between complex and complicated. Meriam Webster defines complex as “a whole made up of interrelated parts” and complicated as “difficult to understand, analyze or explain.” Yes, safety is complex, but it doesn’t have to be complicated.

Take a look at a couple of safety processes that should be simple but have been overly complicated to the point of losing the effectiveness.

Proactive reporting is a great way for workers to identify what’s not working as planned and where their organization is vulnerable to losses. We need basic information on what happened (or almost happened) and what equipment or procedure was involved. The reporting form or app should be simple and easy to use, but I have seen near-miss reports with multiple pages, embedded root cause analysis, confusing classifications and formal risk assessments. The process has become so complicated that workers just give up on reporting.

The pre-job planning tool (i.e., JSA, FLRA) should be a simple process where workers discuss and document key aspects of their upcoming task: What are the key steps, the unique hazards and risks and what controls are needed? It doesn’t have to be complicated with formal risk calculations on original and residual risks, multiple pages, reference to regulations and redundancy of the owner’s, contractor’s and individual’s document that all serve the same purpose. The process can become so complicated that the objective of making the work safe has been replaced with ensuring all the paperwork is in place. The stack of redundant paper just makes the job so complicated that there is bound to be difficulty in understanding the intent.

We need to address complex safety issues in a systematic manner. First, we need to ensure that we (safety professionals and management) understand how and why that aspect of safety will contribute to a safer workplace and safer workers. Second, we need to ensure that our safety processes are aligned with and built from the underlying science. Third, the supporting tools and processes must be developed so that workers can understand them and use them effectively. A gap in any of these steps will ultimately fail to capture the complex nature of safety or else will end up complicating it to the point of being ineffective or unusable.

When I reflect back on that encouraging introduction that I had to safety three decades ago — “Safety is simple” — I realize now it was a statement to lure me into this profession, but it does not represent the true scope of safety. Safety is, in fact, a complex interrelationship of factors, but our goal must always be to understand that complexity and then address it without making it difficult to understand, analyze or explain. Our measure of success will be how well we take the complex nature of safety and make it simple for the end users.

Safety is complex, but it doesn’t have to be complicated.


Dave Fennell is an independent safety consultant and motivational speaker based in Cochrane, Alta. He can be reached at [email protected] or visit www. davefennellsafety.com for more information.