Global Concept: Safety


The OHS Body of Knowledge (OHS BoK) has three global concepts: Work, Safety; and Health.1 In 2012, having been asked to define ‘Safety’ in the OHS BoK chapter on Global Concept: Safety, the author wrote “Safety is a large topic that resists simple definition.” (Dekker, 2012, p. 1.) He then explored four questions or viewpoints:

  • Is human error a cause or consequence?
  • Is compliance with rules a sufficient or limited approach?
  • Is safety best conceptualised as absence of negatives or presence of capabilities?
  • Is safety best addressed at a component or system level?

This response to the question by posing further questions is, perhaps, an indication of the lack of maturity of professional thinking at the time. More recently safety science has been defined as:

  • A messy field
  • Lacking a uniform paradigm as a mature science
  • Without a clear definition or objective
  • Open to change, negotiation and conflict resulting in a dynamic scope and boundaries. (Ge, Xu, et al., 2019)

This ongoing lack of definition around the ‘science of safety’ has inhibited recognition of safety as a profession and also led to ill-informed discussion, ‘knee-jerk’ reactions to safety issues and ‘flavour of the month’ strategies. The most limiting factor is probably the lack of a coherent exposition and understanding of the foundations and interlinking theories that constitute safety science.

The ongoing discussion on what constitutes safety science acknowledges that safety has a history, in many cases, focusing on the gaps, or what safety science is not. But what can be drawn from history to learn about what safety science is.

While some ‘theories’ and practices that emerged through this historical period are now disdainfully rejected by many, other theories are consciously or unconsciously incorporated into our thinking today. But is this rejection/acceptance based on an in-depth understanding of the foundations of the knowledge and a conceptual understanding? This chapter draws on the book Foundations of Safety Science (Dekker, 2019) to provide a summary of the evolution of safety theory and how the various theories have influenced our current thinking and practice in safety. It is thus a natural sequel to the dissertation on Safety as a Global Concept written in 2012.

This chapter is a ‘global’ overview of the evolution of that theory, it is not an in-depth exposition of that theory, that can only be obtained by reading the detail in the Foundations of Safety Science. Thus, this chapter does not have detailed referencing. The core of the chapter is an episodic review of the predominant safety theory of the time with comment on its validity and impact on our thinking today. The threads of the various theories are then drawn together to demonstrate that (perhaps unwittingly) almost every approach ends up focusing on the people who work in the ‘system’. The chapter concludes by identifying safety as essentially a social science, still in preliminary and flawed, but essential to the practice of safety.