Occupational Safety

The copy-paste dilemma in occupational health and safety

How to become a safety innovator

5 min05/04/2023

by Daniel Hummerdal

Health and safety is a field rife with imitation. Creativity is rare, and at best you will find some diversity in the layout and naming conventions of, say, operational risk assessments. Otherwise, it is as if solutions are simply copied and pasted from one organization to the next.

In this article, you'll learn why we tend to copy and paste when it comes to occupational safety, and what the consequences are. We will also show you how to solve the copy-paste dilemma and how you can benefit from a creative approach to legal requirements in occupational health and safety.

Why do we hesitate to innovate in health and safety?

First, it is important to understand that there are perfectly good reasons to copy rather than innovate:

  • FEAR OF FAILURE: Trying something new comes with unknown risks, ranging from safety risks, wasted time, workflow disruptions, and bad publicity that can undermine overall performance and success. 
  • INNOVATING IS EXHAUSTING: Our brains naturally tend to follow similar paths because they are easier, faster, more familiar, and seemingly less risky.
  • SAFETY IS ALL ABOUT CHANGING BEHAVIOR: Safety is often understood as getting people to change their behavior to do what someone else things is safer. Our profession has fallen prey to the idea that it is easier to adapt people’s needs to what is available than adapt what is available to people’s needs.

Understanding the pitfalls of copy and paste

“If I do what everyone else is doing, my chances of success must be good. I mean, they can’t all be wrong, right?” Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Different contexts are just that: different. We operate in different ecosystems with requirements and starting points that are unique, nuanced, and diverse. It may be tempting to copy and paste a great solution, but if your approach is not aligned with the realities, it can also lead to mistakes, inefficiencies, and constant tweaking and re-tweaking. Why? Because no matter how great a best practice solution is, the company that created it does not know what practices are best for your company. 

If you try to copy the success of others, your employees will see that it has nothing to do with their work and will inevitably see occupational health and safety as boring, unrealistic, and an obstacle to productivity. Your chances of convincingly demonstrating legal compliance and generating realistic data and key figures, e.g., on safety risks, accidents, or incidents, are slim. Without a motivated workforce, you can neither understand the status quo nor sustainably improve it to make your company a safer place to work.

The good news: 

You have more room than you think to challenge the way things are done and to tap into the amazing human capacity to detect, evaluate, create, and care. Many countries have performance-based or principle-based health and safety legislation. This means that certain requirements are clearly defined—such as risk assessment—but how we meet these requirements is up to us.

Innovating risk assessments

If we dare to challenge the copy-paste mentality in conducting risk assessments, we can come up with amazing, new solutions: I have seen a team collaboratively sketch their work situation (including hazards and controls) on a truck, or people place a ruler on different parts of a machine to visualize and identify injury risks, or employees engage in playful dialogues to imagine scenarios of what could go wrong.

Most importantly, they found individual and efficient ways to document how they conducted a proper risk assessment. In each case, the solutions were developed on site and gave the teams a great sense of pride and belonging.

Rather than trying to copy any of these ideas, use them as inspiration to make dull health and safety tasks engaging and to make better use of people’s skills.

How to become a safety innovator

To become a "Safety Innovator", we need to understand that the "good" reasons for copying rather than innovating mentioned at the beginning can be overcome with even better methods:

Reason #1 against innovation: We are afraid of failure.

When it comes to the fear of failure, the trick is to start small. Running trials with a small team when trying something new is easier to get approved and financed. There is less risk, and it is easier to iterate, evolve, and pull the plug when necessary. But more importantly, starting small and finding a way to grow allows us to build a solid foundation of evidence for new methods and processes. Soon, we will have more support for new designs than we would likely get by simply copying and pasting someone else’s solutions.

Reason #2 against innovation: Innovating is exhausting.

Find the fire in your belly to overcome the tendency to take the easy route. How? Management guru Tom Peters claims that the number one source of innovation is "pissed off people." So, have a look around: What is dysfunctional, wasteful, inefficient, and gives you the feeling that the world could be different, if only...?

Reason #3 against innovation: Safety is all about changing behavior.

Grow empathy to overcome our focus on changing people. Empathy is our ability to see the world through the eyes of others—to see what they see, feel what they feel, and experience things as they do. To achieve this, we must set aside our preconceived notions of how things should be and become curious about how things are. Empathy allows us to learn about people’s difficulties and needs, and to gain insight into what helps and what hinders performance. Only by understanding the reasons can you find solutions that work for your employees and working conditions. By involving the workforce in your innovation process, you ensure that your ideas bear fruit.

Great reasons on why to innovate safety

In summary, creativity allows health and safety professionals to design work processes and procedures that are better, more humane, and more interesting. However, this requires them to forge their own paths, develop their own methods from the inside out, and create them on site.

When we stop looking to others for the answers, we can turn our eyes and ears to our own companies to understand what is needed and develop ideas about how to make it happen. When we stop looking up and out for approval or trying to conform, and instead focus our attention and appreciation down and in, we can set the stage for creative and independent problem solving.

Daniel Hummerdal is Head of Innovation at WorkSafe New Zealand, the country’s primary workplace health and safety regulator. As one of the world’s leading experts on occupational health and safety innovation, he is heavily involved in the development and implementation of new concepts, such as Safety-II and Safety Differently.

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