Professor, author and pilot Sidney Dekker talks safety from 30,000ft, “overparenting” in the mining industry, and how one Australian mine has scrapped all safety procedures in a brave experiment.
Tell me about your background in safety?
It really started when I was 14 years old, and started gliding and developing a sincere interest in aviation. Then, when I finished high school, my mum suggested I study psychology because she thought I was a good listener, so I studied psychology and then during those studies at some point, I sought ways to combine my interest in psych and aviation and, of course, aviation psychology comes up, with a sincere interest in safety.
I then pursued another degree in experimental psychology to deepen my knowledge of human behaviour and safety critical situations… and was able to pursue a PhD at the Ohio State University in the US, where David Woods, my supervisor, had an awesome program with a focus on human error.
What experience do you have in the mining industry?
My credentials in that are exceedingly limited. I was brought up in safety in much high-tech domains, I’ve mentioned aviation and healthcare mostly, with a focus in human factors. It was only when I came to Australia about four years ago… I realised that the safety conversation here is dominated completely by a couple of big miners, who in turn have long relied on an ideology and recipes provided to them by, particularly, organisations with a very behavioural focus on how to create greater safety.
That has certainly yielded results, but at the same time, I have seen an increasing impatient and disenchantment with the difficulty to get rid of residual injuries and incidents, as well as a fear among those of a non-reduction in fatalities. So we keep producing the same number of fatalities that we have been doing for years, and of course, increasingly as a result of suicide-related, due to the vast social experiments that Australia has engaged in in terms of farming people out to prison camps to work basically, proverbial prison camps, and they’re dressed up nicely, but of course, the social issues are severe and deep there.
What got me really engaged with the mining industry in this country, was of course, the fact that they carry a large part of the economy… and the concern that they have over safety in this country trumps virtually every other country. And so that was one (reason), but the other one was the sense of this quiet, of this enchantment at the ‘look, we’ve got great results, we’ve come a long way, but we seem to be stuck in a cycle of stability’. We do more of the same, and we keep getting more of the same.
And that really got me quite excited, and thinking, ‘wow, there are ways to really start turning this around and thinking radically and critically around this’.
What do you think are the major safety issues in the mining industry at the moment?
I think it is the challenge to step away from a recipe of overparenting, and when I say overparenting, what I really mean is an increase in monitoring, surveillance, coercive control of how people are behaving, where they stand, how they lift, which finger they use for which task – it’s almost a capillary to control – capillary in the sense of the smallest blood vessels in your body – it pervades the smallest aspects of work.
I saw an article which discusses how one site is using drones, not to measure the amount of stock they have lying around… No, these drones were used to monitor WHS compliance and so, managers were sitting there counting hard hats, counting yellow vests, and looking for violations of compliance. Now, if ever, there was an embodiment, an image, of overparenting or helicopter parenting, in the industry – that is it.
I think, we have reached the ‘end of the conversation’ of that recipe. New technology may make surveillance ever easier and ever more pervasive… but I don’t think it contributes to ever greater safety.
I’ve worked closely with people who actually do this work on the ground, rather than just being distant and having a more distant view… and what I get from them is an appeal to autonomy, to some self-sufficiency and selfdetermination to ideas that ‘we know how to do this work, the procedure doesn’t actually match it at all, and the handbook that tells us how to do it has got it wrong’.
It creates more risk, or it creates completely ridiculous requirements to, for example, wear a yellow vest over the top of hi-visibility shirts. That sort of bureaucratic intervention had no sensitivity to the real sources of risk and how people can really get in trouble.
But when you look at it from the ground up, there is so much information about how to get stuff done. I think one of the major issues and challenges is to start to understand how people create success, not how they screw up, but what they need to do every day to create success.
“…rather than measuring safety as an absence of negatives, which is very much the tradition – the negative events, the injuries and the incidents – we need to maximise the amount of things that go right.”
Ultimately, we have some evidence of this in research that we have done, that is, where the source of the fatality seems to lie – it is not in people screwing up, or violating procedure or not being compliant, it is in their constant getting success with what they are doing every day, and as they are doing that, margins may be eroding because there is always pressure, there’s multiple goals, there’s always resource constraints – faster, better, cheaper.
Where do you stand on mental health and safety in the mining industry?
As a psychologist, I have to stand with my professional brethren and say this is a really important issue.
I think we need to temper the enthusiasm for engaging in what Ken Gergen beautifully calls ‘progressive cycles of infirmity’, that is, we keep inventing labels to stick on conditions that people seem to suffer from and stigmatise them as mental health issues. And that may not be necessary if we understand the social conditions that would normally give rise to that sort of issue in any sane person.
I think Australia, uniquely in the world, has engaged unreflectively and without giving it a lot of forethought, in a vast social experiment in fly-in fly-out communities. There used to be a time, even in this country, that the mining industry supported local communities, supported local life, supported the social and institutional arrangements that helped people live meaningful lives, with families out in those areas.
That has been eroded significantly, I only have to mention one mine, where I learnt if you want to work there, you have to live within 150km radius of brisbane airport, and the mine is not within 150km radius of Brisbane airport – it’s thousands of kilometres away.
We have eroded people’s social existence and teared it down… we have stripped the richness away from the human experience, we have stripped the resilience away from the so-called community that we constitute that way, and as we do that, we see consequences, mental health consequences… but these aren’t the normal, predictable consequences of the vast social experiment that you engaged in. So perhaps all of the interest in mental health issues in the mining industry gives rise to a larger systemic thinking about what we are doing with how we recruit people and how we think about human resources in the first place, rather than thinking that we have an increasing number of our people who are mentally sick, because then it is suddenly their problem, it is an individual issue.
I don’t think it is an individual issue, I think it’s a socially and institutionally produced problem that we are all guilty of in the mining industry.
Do you think some companies in the industry are putting productivity before safety?
I am not even going to answer that diplomatically. The idea that safety is the number one priority is a lie, it’s marketing, and beyond marketing and mendacious, it may be an honest commitment that people make. I think we really care if we are committed to safety, in fact I don’t want to impugn anybody’s motives in this, because I believe people are, in fact, concerned about safety.
But if they are not producing, they don’t even have to worry about safety because there is nothing to worry about, they won’t be there. And so, there’s always a constant set of goals that are active at the same time, people need to be safe but they need to produce, so you can survive until the next day, the next year, the next quarter.
I think organisations, if you are look at it from a complexity point of view, they are skimping on all kinds of goals and trading off goals against each other the whole time. That really is quite trivial, but what is interesting is, are they aware of that? Do you know when you are trading one goal off against another? Do you know when you are sacrificing one particular thing against something else that you also need to achieve in that situation?
When it comes to safety, what matters is for critical decision makers to try and make the consequences more visible. To then talk about the necessity of showing the courage to take the small hits to invest in a larger margin.
You founded the Safety Science Innovation Lab at the Griffith University, where safety professionals have come together to form the Safety Differently group. Can you expand on what the group does?
There was clearly a need to create a lab, a platform, to start doing some research to try to create empirical evidence for the worst of a different kind of safety, and what do we mean by that? Safety Differently says people are not the problem – they are the solution. When you look at traditional safety, that people are seen as the problem to control – you control this problem by wearing yellow vests, by monitoring their compliance, by surveilling their moves, because otherwise they will create your problems, right?
Safety Differently says people are the solution, people know very well what to do and how to create safety… rather than trying to foresee and predict and control their every move, use them as sources of resilience.
The other thing that Safety Differently says is people should not intervene in other people’s behaviour – we need to intervene in the conditions of their work. Rather than telling them what they do, we need to ask them what they need – a very different question, a very different position to take if you are a safety advisor. Ask what they need to do something well, and, very importantly, rather than measuring safety as an absence of negatives, which is very much the tradition – the negative events, the injuries and the incidents – we need to maximise the amount of things that go right.
We are actually testing these ideas with a larger organisation in Australia that has hundreds of sites, in one of the conditions we have taken everything away that is related to safety, except that which is necessary by regulation or law, like fire exits and things like that. Everything is gone – the posters, the noticeboards, the procedures, everything that the company itself created is gone. And then the site manager had one rule – don’t hurt anyone. Over to you. So right now, and this takes 12 months, we’re looking at what they’re going to do.
It’s the idea to give them autonomy, purpose, mastery to do it from the ground up, rather than the top down, so that is a very courageous ways of testing these ideas. And if something does start going wrong, we can immediately bring stuff back in. So, those are wonderful ways in which we are now, rather than just blabbing about this stuff, actually creating scientific data about it in a carefully controlled trial.
Sidney is currently Professor at Griffith University in Australia, where he has founded the Safety Science Innovation Lab, and Honorary Professor at the School of Psychology at The University of Queensland, as well as Honorary Professor of Human Factors and Patient Safety at Royal Children’s Hospital in Brisbane.
Sidney was born near Amsterdam in the Netherlands. He studied psychology at the University of Nijmegen, now known as Radboud University. He has completed a Masters’ Degree in Organizational Psychology, a Master’s in Experimental Psychology, and a PhD in Cognitive Systems Engineering.
Since his PhD, Sidney has gained worldwide acclaim for his groundbreaking work on human error and safety. He was previously at Lund University in Sweden as Professor where he founded the Leonardo da Vinci Laboratory for Complexity and Systems Thinking, as well as an MSc in Human Factors and System Safety. He has also been a Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and Honorary Professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine, Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He has also been visiting Professor of Community Health Science at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Manitoba, in Canada.