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Safety paradoxes and safety culture

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This paper deals with four safety paradoxes: (1) Safety is defined and measured more by its absence than its presence. (2) Defences, barriers and safeguards not only protect a system, they can also cause its catastrophic breakdown. (3) Many organisations seek to limit the variability of human action, primarily to minimise error, but it is this same variability – in the form of timely adjustments to unexpected events – that maintains safety in a dynamic and changing world. (4) An unquestioning belief in the attainability of absolute safety can seriously impede the achievement of realisable safety goals, while a preoccupation with failure can lead to high reliability. Drawing extensively upon the study of high reliability organisations (HROs), the paper argues that a collective understanding of these paradoxes is essential for those organisations seeking to achieve an optimal safety culture. It concludes with a consideration of some practical implications.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: March 1, 2000

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