Steve Highley summarises the need for Sustainable Active Safety (SAS) and provides an overview of its components and use.

My first two post on the need for SAS considered two issues.

In ‘Does your safety cake need any icing?’  I raised the concern that whilst behaviour based safety (BBS) and culture change programmes can make a positive contribution to safety performance, they are too often an unnecessary decoration or a dangerous distraction.  The initial appearance of safety improvement is not sustained in the long term.*  Organisational resources for sustaining and improving performance are finite.  Leadership attention on, or in the worst case obsession with, BBS and safety culture change as a magic bullet, takes away attention from the ‘cake’ of sustaining effective health and safety risk control and management practices.  Crucially, what should be at the bottom of the hierarchy of risk control progressively moves to the top.

In ‘Beyond Zero: We Need a More Positive Vision for Improving Safety’  I summarised the issues with ‘zero’ as a safety performance goal.  I then outlined how the phrase Sustainable Active Safety can be used to provide a positive basis for continual improvement vision and goals.

Safety – minimising the likelihood of harm – is achieved by sustaining the active presence of robust reliable risk control measures and skilfully applied intelligent safety management systems and procedures.  These are two of the elements in the SAS framework.  A positive safety culture emerges from this rather than being engineered (or manipulated) in through another layer of procedural controls and yet another information system.

What Sustainable Active Safety needs to do

What is needed is a holistic approach to improving safety, including an organisation’s safety culture, that:

  • Takes advantage of well-known good practices in health and safety risk management. There is no one- size fits all.  These practices must be adapted to fit each organisation’s needs to ensure that they become fully integrated into ‘the way we do things round here’.  Many organisations that have followed the fashion for BBS and safety culture change would likely have realised more safety improvement value for money from focusing on improving the effectiveness and efficiency of their health and safety risk management practices.
  • Integrates learning from psychological sciences – behavioural, cognitive and social (organisational culture).

This learning should not be bolted on, but built into the safety management system and used to:

  • help ensure risk control measures are robust and reliable
  • improve the effectiveness of safety management practices
  • ensure positive responses to failure
  • increase human error resilience, and so on

This may include an appropriate form of behaviour based safety programme but only if it can make a contribution that justifies the cost (both in time and money) compared to other improvement options.  Safety is too important to squander precious resources on improvement initiatives that do not impact an organisation’s most serious risks – those most likely to cause severe irreversible harm.**

The ultimate objective of SAS is to deliver high levels of safety performance in a way that is integrated with achieving all of an organisation’s critical performance goals?  Importantly, SAS is in part a call to re-focus on doing the necessary work of safety management systems with skill and enthusiasm.

What are the key ingredients of Sustained Active Safety?

The SAS diagram shows eight main ingredients in the outside ovals, briefly described in the table below.  They can be thought of highlighting the critical qualities of an effective and efficient safety management system for which the key outputs are ‘robust reliable risk controls combined’ with ‘everybody, everyday safe by choice’.

These SAS ingredients should be thought of as interdependent.  Like the critical organs of our body they all need to be working well to achieve a healthy level of safety performance.  Each element provides resources that the other elements need to be effective.  And like our organs, each one is complex in itself and in its interactions with the other elements.

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Resilient Safety Leadership
Transformational leadership skills combined with understanding the organisational causes of failure and success.  Regularly paying knowledgeable attention to safety management and risk control.  Providing the behavioural activators and consequences for their team that support positive safety action throughout the organisation.  Fostering transparency about safety problems such as goal conflicts and resource constraints.  Removing barriers to organisation wide co-operation for solving safety problems.

Positive Response to Failure
Forward thinking accountability focused on improvement, based on thorough investigation of the root causes of human failures.  This is critical for achieving honest transparency about performance problems and errors.  Error traps will not be discovered if people are not willing to confess errors they make if discovered every time they occur.

Human Factors Integration
Ensuring systems, procedures and working practices allow for human performance limits and thinking biases, and are error proofed whenever practicable.  Working to minimise error producing conditions.  Applying behavioural science principles in all safety activities.  Creating peer pressure that supports safety improvement.

Robust Reliable Risk Control
Based on thorough risk assessment and application of the hierarchy of control with hazard elimination and minimisation, and safe design, coming before safe people.  Effectively implemented and maintained passive and active risk control measures.  Realistic emergency response plans and willingness to initiate them at the first signs of a possible emergency.


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Intelligent Safety Management Systems
Implementing effective & efficient best practices in safety management with user-friendly schedule based documentation.  It should be easy for everyone to know what their safety responsibilities require them to do, when they need to do it, how they should do it and what good looks like.  Recording processes that are as simple and time-effective as possible.  There should be enough flexibility for rules to be adapted and improved within a framework of control appropriate to the hazards that must be controlled.

Safety Skills Development
Investment in safety skills at every level of the organisation.  Training needs analysis based on the task frequency, if the task must be performed fluently from memory or can make use of job aids.  Training delivered using active learning focused on what people are required to do, evaluated by application to real life scenarios

Real Life Hazard Awareness
Combining an understanding of the foreseeable consequences of the hazards present from risk assessment, with personal testimony and accident cases to create ‘constructive anxiety’ and make real the need for sustained attention on ‘safety delivery’ activities by everyone.



Everybody Everyday Safe by Choice
With the time, equipment and resources needed readily available, and the mutual support of team members and managers.  It requires cross-organisation reciprocal co-operation where individuals and teams may at times need to choose to make small sacrifices with their personal goals for the overall good of the organisation ***




Continual Improvement towards Sustained Active Safety

Central to creating a self-sustaining, actively planning and doing, safety culture is the continual improvement and maintenance cycle of checking and acting.

Checking comprises:

  • Measuring using a modest number of team and individual performance indicators – too much data are as bad as too little. These indicators should have predictive and practical value.  Performance indicators should be designed to provide a meaningful basis for feedback and to reveal problems.  Performance goals needs to foster internal co-operation rather than competition.***
  • Feedback that is clear, meaningful and regular enough to both challenge and encourage. It should combine use of the data from performance indicators with knowledgeable judgements made by leaders.  Many factors that are crucial to achieving high levels of active safety cannot be easily distilled into numerical indicators.  This emphasises the importance of regular positive leadership attention on how safety activities are working in practice.  And the act of paying regular attention and giving feedback in an appropriate way is a critically important consequence for improving and sustaining important safety behaviours.  Leaders must show that they care about what people are doing.

Acting comprises:

  • Improving through co-operative team-based safety performance problem solving skills. Supported by active leadership that helps with prioritisation and ensures the resources needed are available.
  • Sustaining with activity focused top-up training for all, supportive safety coaching and mentoring, and regular refreshing of the measurement and feedback process.  Without continued feedback at an appropriate level, performance gains are unlikely to be sustained in the face of the next wave of improvement projects.  And, of course, communicate and celebrate success.
The practice of Sustainable Active Safety

In the introduction to Lessons from Disaster: How  organisations have no memory and accidents recur, Trevor Kletz wrote that accidents occur ‘because we [organisations] do not use the knowledge that is available’.  This is largely but not entirely true.  There has been learning about the psychology of safety, resilience vulnerabilities and how organisations within which the majority of people are trying to do a good job can drift into failure without any one person being negligent (at least with foresight – it may not look that way from the distorting perspective of hindsight bias).

At one level, there is little that is new in SAS.  It is a call to refocus on ensuring there is deep competence in the core skills of health and safety risk management and risk control.  It is also a call to build in rather than bolt on more recent learning about applying the full range of psychological principles to improving safety performance.

In practice, the SAS framework provides a basis for:

  • Specifying a safety improvement vision and goals that are focused on the inputs, activities and outputs that deliver the outcome of a likelihood of serious harm that is ‘as low as reasonably practicable’.
  • Diagnosing strengths and weaknesses in how health and safety risk management and risk control are working in practice.
  • Creating a bespoke programme of improvement inputs and support to grow and sustain an active safety culture. For example a full BBS type programme may include:
    • a safety culture measurement and feedback process;
    • identifying and addressing credibility issues;
    • the motivational element of real life hazard awareness sessions,
    • workshops on safety leadership soft skills including the need to for positively responding to failures;
    • implementing a safety behaviour observation, measurement and feedback process ideally making use of existing systems and procedures.

Please contact us if you would like to discuss how Hastam can help you use the SAS framework and principles to achieve and sustain the level of active safety performance your organisation needs.


*  This can be an indicator that the motivation to comply with the programme has been negative, avoiding adverse personal consequences from not being seen to be co-operating with an initiative that senior managers are paying attention to.  When the programme ends and senior management attention moves elsewhere, organisational inertia reasserts itself and behaviours revert to historical norms.

**  The extent to which harm caused can be reversed or replaced is an important factor when prioritising risks.  Financial loss can be reversed.  Damaged equipment can be replaced, often through insurance.  But fatal and severely disabling injuries are irreversible.  Compensation does not reverse the impact on the injured person.  Hazards capable of causing death and severe disability in the circumstances of a hazardous event should always receive disproportionate attention.  Behavioural safety programmes too often fail to engage with the control of low likelihood high severity major accident hazards, a decidedly un-magical bullet shot in the dark.

***  That internal competition is somehow good for an organisation is one of those persistent myths that refuses to die.  It is of course most likely to be promoted by the winners who benefit from it.  But I fail to understand the thinking that a team comprising one winner and the rest loses will deliver the best overall performance for an organisation.  Surely what an organisation needs is whole teams of winners sharing learning and helping each other to perform at best level they can.

Focusing on your individual performance needs to the exclusion of others can also be downright dangerous.  Just think how much safer own road system would be if the primary objective was to co-operate as much as possible with other drivers whilst completing your journey, instead of completing your journey as fast as you can.  This would result in modest increases in journey times, likely offset by a significant reduction in congestion delays due to accidents.  Each person making small sacrifices to help other drivers would transform the safety performance of the whole system.  And just think about how much more relaxed and positive you may feel when you arrive at your destination after helping lots of people during your journey.  It works for me.

To find out more about Steve Highley click here.






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