Systems Safety And The Management Of Risk

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Systems Safety And The Management Of Risk

Systems safety and the management of risk


The issue of safety in modern technologies has received increased attention over the past decade. The major stimulus for this has been a number of major disasters in the 1980s (e.g. Chernobyl, Challenger, Herald of Free Enterprise, King's Cross, Piper Alpha, Clapham Junction) in which the events leading to the accidental outcome had their origins in the organisation and management of the system. For this reason, the focus of attention has moved away from a technical and human error focus for accident prevention, to the activities and processes that are involved in 'safety management'. This can also be seen as a shift from 'proximal' causes of accidents, to their more 'distal' antecedents and contributors. Given that such accidents were not prevented by analysis of purely technical and human operational error aspects, and given that safety science would aim to prevent such accidents, this represents a welcome shift of focus, as long as this shift yields better understanding, prediction and prevention of such accidents.

Safety management itself may be seen as the process whereby “informed decisions are taken to meet accepted safety criteria” and, thus, safety management could be regarded as “the management process to achieve a state of freedom from unacceptable risks of harm” (Cox and Tait, 1991; p. 244). Safety management is carried out via the organisation's safety management system, including its procedures, training, rules and resources, which acts as a system of control over work activities and working methods. Safety management as an approach is relatively mature, and a number of guidelines on the implementation and operation of effective management systems for health and safety have been issued (e.g. HSE, 1991 and HSE, 1992). These have often been linked to pre-existing standards on quality systems and management (e.g. BS 5750, 1987 and ISO 9001-9004, 1987). Safety management, therefore, at least in theory, appears to be competently equipped to handle accident prevention.

However, a prominent feature in many recent disasters is that the system safety defences broke down, not because of the way that safety was managed via the formal controls of policy and procedures, but because of the 'safety climate' and 'safety culture' in which safety management activities were carried out (ACSNI, 1993). The work environment is a mixture of physical components (e.g. equipment, premises), the organisational structure, and the attributes of the employees working in the organisation (e.g. skills, knowledge, attitudes). These components will be both formal and informal in nature (Schneider, 1990) and will give rise to a complex set of interactions which are manifested as the climate of the organisation (Zohar, 1980). Safety culture developed as a concept and came to prominence after the Chernobyl nuclear accident where human errors and violations of procedures were referred to as evidence of a poor safety culture (IAEA, 1986 and OECD Nuclear Agency, 1987).

Critical Safety Threats

Research has often failed to make the distinction between the concepts of safety management, safety climate and safety ...
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