What happens when nothing happens?

Erik Hollnagel (2).jpg

Professor Erik Hollnagel presented to members of the Safety Institute of Australia at Edith Cowan University. Professor Hollnagel Challenged us on how we think about safety.

In his presentation, “What happens when nothing happens?” Professor Hollnagel explained his concept of Safety-I and Safety-II.

The premise for Safety-I is the need to understand why accidents happen. Safety-I is defined by its absence rather than by its presence.

To illustrate he asked if it were possible to understand what a happy marriage is by analysing and learning from divorces alone? He asked if we then thought it possible to understand what safety is by analysing and learning from accidents and incidents alone?

Accidents represent a lack of safety. But a lack of accidents does not represent safety. How can we improve safety by studying situations where there is no safety? Safety must therefore be based on an understanding of what happens when “nothing” happens – when there are no accidents.

Professor Hollnagel went on to explain that Safety-II is achieved by trying to make sure that things go well, rather than by preventing them from going wrong.

The result of Safety-I is that we know something about what goes wrong, but almost nothing about what goes well. But to manage safety properly, we must understand what happens when nothing happens. The purpose of safety management should not only be to prevent the unusual from happening (Safety-I) but also to ensure that the usual happens (Safety-II).

It was an honour to attend Professor Hollnagel’s lecture. Following his presentation there were many questions and comments from the members of the Safety Institute wishing to further explore and discuss his concept of Safety-I and Safety-II.