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Q&A with Professor Sidney Dekker

Professor Sidney Dekker


Professor, author and pilot Sidney Dekker talks safety from 30,000ft, “overparenting” in the mining industry, and how one Australian mine has scrapped all safety procedures in a brave experiment.


Tell me about your background in safety:

It really started when I was 14 years old, and started gliding and developing a sincere interest in aviation. Then, when I finished high school, my mum suggested I study psychology because she thought I was a good listener, so I studied psychology and then during those studies at some point, I sought ways to combine my interest in psych and aviation and, of course, aviation psychology comes up, with a sincere interest in safety.

I then pursued another degree in experimental psychology to deepen my knowledge of human behaviour and safety-critical situations… and was able to pursue a PhD at the Ohio State University in the US, where David Woods, my supervisor, had an awesome program with a focus on human error.

So four years later I got my PhD and essentially worked first in aviation, worked up in Sweden, and gradually got more and more involved in safety-related issues, the aftermath of big accidents, in particular, was something that drew me in. People started asking me for help, assistance, advice, even in very high visibility, particularly, aviation accidents. After a few years, issues in healthcare also started coming my way in the sense that, particularly adverse events that lead to deaths, or things like that, created interest in people to look at the human factors and the issues behind them.

In that role, assisting in the aftermath of these debacles, these terrible events, I also developed a keen interest in the second victim – that is, the practitioner involved in the incident, and who is feeling very guilty and responsible personally for the deaths, or the damage, or the problems that occurred as a result of their actions. Which, at some point resulted in a book with that very title.

I have written seven titles of which many have gone through various editions, and a whole bunch of translations… And there is more coming, always more, because the book you have just written is never as interesting as the book you are currently writing, which in itself, is not as interesting as the book you want to write. Which again, is not as interesting as spending time with my kids.

What experience do you have in the mining industry?

My credentials in that are exceedingly limited. I was brought up in safety in much high-tech domains, I’ve mentioned aviation and healthcare mostly, with a focus in human factors. It was only when I came to Australia about four Add Newyears ago… I realised that the safety conversation here is dominated completely by a couple of big miners, who in turn have long relied on an ideology and recipes provided to them by, particularly, organisations with a very behavioural focus on how to create greater safety.

That has certainly yielded results, but at the same time, I have seen an increasing impatient and disenchantment with the difficulty to get rid of residual injuries and incidents, as well as a fear among those of a non-reduction in fatalities. So we keep producing the same number of fatalities that we have been doing for years, and of course, increasingly as a result of suicide-related, due to the vast social experiments that Australia has engaged in, in terms of farming people out to prison camps to work basically, proverbial prison camps, and they’re dressed up nicely, but of course, the social issues are severe and deep there.

What got me really engaged with the mining industry in this country, was of course, the fact that they carry a large part of the economy… and the concern that they have over safety in this country trumps virtually every other country. And so that was one (reason), but the other one was the sense of this quiet, of this enchantment at the ‘look, we’ve got great results, we’ve come a long way, but we seem to be stuck in a cycle of stability’. We do more of the same, and we keep getting more of the same. So there is a thirst for some new ideas and thinking differently beyond the mere behavioural recipe that has been applied with success previously.

And that really got me quite excited, and thinking, ‘wow, there are ways to really start turning this around and thinking radically and critically around this’.

What do you think are the major safety issues in the Australian mining industry at the moment?

I think it is the challenge to step away from a recipe of overparenting, and when I say overparenting, what I really mean is an increase in monitoring, surveillance, coercive control of how people are behaving, where they stand, how they lift, which finger they use for which task – it’s almost a capillary to control – capillary in the sense of the smallest blood vessels in your body – it pervades the smallest aspects of work.

I saw an article which discusses how one site is using drones, not to measure the amount of stock they have lying around, which is a very relevant way to use drones obviously because you don’t have people surveying with all the risks that it entails. No, these drones were used to monitor WHS compliance and so, managers were sitting there counting hard hats, counting yellow vests, and looking for violations of compliance. Now, if ever, there was an embodiment, an image, of overparenting or helicopter parenting, in the industry – that is it.

I think, we have reached the ‘end of the conversation’ of that recipe. New technology may make surveillance ever easier and ever more pervasive – surveillance or monitoring of what people do and how fast they drive, what they wear, are there ID chips on their clothing? There is no limit to the inventiveness of human beings to keep monitoring each other, but I don’t think it contributes to ever greater safety.

I’ve worked closely with people who actually do this work on the ground, rather than just being distant and having a more distant view… and what I get from them is an appeal to autonomy, to some self-sufficiency and self-determination to ideas that ‘we know how to do this work, the procedure doesn’t actually match it at all, and the handbook that tells us how to do it has got it wrong’.

It creates more risk, or it creates completely ridiculous requirements to, for example, wear a yellow vest over the top of hi-visibility shirts. That sort of bureaucratic intervention had no sensitivity to the real sources of risk and how people can really get in trouble.

But when you look at it from the ground up, the view  from below, there is so much information about how to get stuff done. I think one of the major issues and challenges is to start to understand how people create success, not how they screw up, but what they need to do every day to create success.

Ultimately, we have some evidence of this in research that we have done, that is, where the source of the fatality seems to lie – it is not in people screwing up, or violating procedure or not being compliant, it is in their constant getting success with what they are doing every day, and as they are doing that, margins may be eroding because there is always pressure, there’s multiple goals, there’s always resource constraints – faster, better, cheaper.

And so it is success that breeds the chance of fatality – not failures. We need to understand how people get stuff done at our success.

What are the obstacles they are overcoming every day? What are the frustrations they run into? What are the improvisations that they need to engage in to get something to move, to budge, to work? Because they do this all the time, otherwise it would come to a standstill, right?


Where do you stand on mental health and safety in the mining industry?

As a psychologist, I have to stand with my professional brethren and say this is a really important issue.

I think we need to temper the enthusiasm for engaging in what Ken Gergen beautifully calls ‘progressive cycles of infirmity’, that is, we keep inventing labels to stick on conditions that people seem to suffer from and stigmatise them as mental health issues. And that may not be necessary if we understand the social conditions that would normally give rise to that sort of issue in any sane person.

But the enthusiasm to say, ‘well, we’ve got huge mental health issues’ and all of a sudden saying, ‘look, we’ve got 13 or 50 per cent of the population that’s psychologically sick’. I don’t know whether that necessarily galvanises people to action, it may in fact, at least in the short term, contribute to increasing unwillingness to be identified as such, because you don’t want to be deemed mentally sick.

I think Australia, uniquely in the world, has engaged unreflectively and without giving it a lot of forethought, in a vast social experiment in fly-in fly-out communities.

There used to be a time, even in this country, that the mining industry supported local communities, supported local life, supported the social and institutional arrangements that helped people live meaningful lives, with families out in those areas.

That has been eroded significantly, I only have to mention one mine, where I learnt if you want to work there, you have to live within 150km radius of the Brisbane Airport, and the mine is not within 150km radius of Brisbane Airport – it’s thousands of kilometres away. So I thought that, not only does it add face value to a strange requirement… but to me, that is testimony to the disembedded way in which we have started thinking about human resources in the mining industry.

And as we have done that, we have eroded people’s social existence and teared it down… we have stripped the richness away from the human experience, we have stripped the resilience away from the so-called community that we constitute that way, and as we do that, we see consequences, mental health consequences – I don’t know if we need to call them all mental health consequences, not all of them probably – but these aren’t the normal, predictable consequences of the vast social experiment that you engaged in. So perhaps all of the interest in mental health issues in the mining industry gives rise to a larger systemic thinking about what we are doing with how we recruit people and how we think about human resources in the first place, rather than thinking that we have an increasing number of our people who are mentally sick, because then it is suddenly their problem, it is an individual issue.

I don’t think it is an individual issue, I think it’s a socially and institutionally produced problem that we are all guilty of in the mining industry.


How would YOU define a safe workplace?

Unless I worked there, it’s not my job to define that. The only people who can define what that is, is the people who do the dirty and dangerous work in that workplace. As a professor, I have nothing to say about that – it would all be irrelevant and theoretical – but I think that goes for managers as well, or OHS advisors.

Yes, of course, they would have their definitions of a safe workplace, some days it’s a ‘zero’, which is nonsense. OHS people might say, ‘oh it’s compliance, and if people don’t comply, then we don’t have a safe workplace’. So, those to me are all definitions of a safe workplace, that still are a vast, distance away from how safety actually gets created and broken every day by the people who do the dangerous and dirty work. And so, I would leave it to them, I would ask them, I would work with them and see from the inside out, then I can give you a definition.


Do you think some companies in the industry are putting productivity before safety?

I am not even going to answer that diplomatically. The idea that safety is the number one priority is a lie, it’s marketing, and beyond marketing and mendacious, it may be an honest commitment that people make. I think we really care if we are committed to safety, in fact I don’t want to impugn anybody’s motives in this, because I believe people are, in fact, concerned about safety.

But if they are not producing, they don’t even have to worry about safety because there is nothing to worry about, they won’t be there. And so, there’s always a constant set of goals that are active at the same time, people need to be safe but they need to produce, so you can survive until the next day, the next year, the next quarter.

I think organisations, if you are look at it from a complexity point of view, they are skimping on all kinds of goals and trading off goals against each other the whole time. That really is quite trivial, but what is interesting is, are they aware of that? Do you know when you are trading one goal off against another? Do you know when you are sacrificing one particular thing against something else that you also need to achieve in that situation?

I think rather than answering the question with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – the answer is yes of course – but they’re also skimping on production in some cases there. Probably skimping on investing in mental health, skimping on investing in good beer to drink at these places, in fact, I know they are – they serve incredibly shitty beer.

When it comes to safety, what matters is for critical decision makers to try and make the consequences more visible. To then talk about the necessity of showing the courage to take the small hits to invest in a larger margin.

I’ll give you an example from my own industry, which is aviation. What is really interesting about getting an airplane de-iced is there’s a particular time that the de-icing works, depending on how the snow is falling, how cold it is, how moist the air is and everything. It is called the holdover time, and so you get the ice, you travel to the runway, you wait in line to take off, the clock is ticking… And so the question is, when you are nearing the end of your holdover time, are you going to be the first one to make the sacrifice and go back and get another dose, which costs another couple of thousand dollars? If you’re answer is yes, then you are willing to make a relatively small sacrifice to invest in a large margin, that’s not killing 180 people…

But make the trade-off visible, so if you skimp on this, you win on that, and if you win on this you skimp on that or lose there… There is always multiple trade-offs… investments in mental health issues will not allow you to invest in other areas that affect people safety wise.

Now, in terms of the literature and research on companies consciously skimping on safety, the evidence is actually feather light on that, and that is quite interesting. The thesis that would suggest that is the case, that people deliberately decide not to invest in safety, is called the Amoral Calculator Thesis.


You founded the Safety Science Innovation Lab at the Griffith University, where safety professionals have come together to form the Safety Differently group. Can you expand on what the group does?

There was clearly a need to create a lab, a platform, to start doing some research to try to create empirical evidence for the worst of a different kind of safety, and what do we mean by that? Safety Differently says people are not the problem – they are the solution. When you look at traditional safety, that people are seen as the problem to control – you control this problem by wearing yellow vests, by monitoring their compliance, by surveilling their moves, because otherwise they will create your problems, right?

Safety Differently says people are the solution, people know very well what to do and how to create safety… rather than trying to foresee and predict and control their every move, use them as sources of resilience.

The other thing that Safety Differently says is people should not intervene in other people’s behaviour – we need to intervene in the conditions of their work. Rather than telling them what they do, we need to ask them what they need – a very different question, a very different position to take if you are a safety advisor. Ask what they need to do something well, and, very importantly, rather than measuring safety as an absence of negatives, which is very much the tradition – the negative events, the injuries and the incidents – we need to maximise the amount of things that go right.

And so that vastly changes and reorients what we might invest in, what we think about, how we write up, what we tell our peers, what we put in our annual reports… And that was sort of the recipe that drove Safety Differently thinking in this group… These are great positions to take and principles, but we need to start testing these, and when you want to test stuff, you need a lab, but we don’t test anything in the lab, we test things in the real world. So that is what we are doing.

We are actually testing these ideas with a larger organisation in Australia that has hundreds of sites, in one of the conditions we have taken everything away that is related to safety, except that which is necessary by regulation or law, like fire exits and things like that. Everything is gone – the posters, the noticeboards, the procedures, everything that the company itself created is gone. And then the site manager had one rule- don’t hurt anyone. Over to you. So right now, and this takes 12 months, we’re looking at what they’re going to do.

Are they going to bring everything back? They are free to do that. So it’s the idea to give them autonomy, purpose, mastery to do it from the ground up rather than the top down, so that is a very courageous ways of testing these ideas. And if something does start going wrong, we can immediately bring stuff back in. Unlikely, because they are probably not going to have worse injury numbers than they already have, so those are wonderful ways in which we are now, rather than just blabbing about this stuff, actually creating scientific data about it in a carefully controlled trial.

So, stand by for that!

Amidst your success as a professor, you have also trained to become a pilot – do you think this has aided in your focus on human error? Being that piloting is quite reliant on an individual’s performance?

The privilege of being a pilot is that you are always the first on the scene of an accident, and what that does is it focuses the mind and having 189 people under your tail, who go where you point the nose, is something that certainly doesn’t leave you cold either.

Actually having done this myself, rather than just talking about safety, I think has revealed to me the ethical depth of what we’re dealing with and the commitment that we need to make, not only to our own safety, but of other people who have, what’s called a fiduciary relationship with us.

That is a relationship of trust, they put their trust in my hands, and they have no say in it. So that has certainly given me humility in talking about this, but also a realisation of the moral implications in the decisions that we make when it comes to safety.

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  • I was given the ultimatum of resign or be sacked from my job of 7yrs. I chose to resign. Over 4years the public utility (a public utility) wore me down. They used every trick in the book to exploit my mental illness. The new world order IS here. It has to be stopped.

AMSJ April 2022