Pia Perttula and Markku Aaltonen, Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, Finland
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Defining safety
- 3 Improving safety
- 3.1 Advantages
- 3.2 Ways of improving safety
- 4 Conclusions
- 5 References
- 6 Links for further reading
Safety is traditionally seen as accident prevention, i.e. avoiding unwanted events from occurring. Safety can also be seen as a basic value in the workplace. If one adopts a proactive way of thinking, then safety can be viewed as resilience engineering, and accordingly in case of unpredictable challenges the operations should be returned back to normal with only minimum damages incurred. In the continuously changing working life and working environment, safety needs to be improved all the time. Reaching the desired safety level requires continuous work, at both the management and operational levels.
The word 'Safety' means the state of being safe, i.e. freedom from the occurrence or risk of injury, danger, or loss. This general definition demonstrates the link between 'safety' and 'risk'. Safety is often defined as the inverse of risk: the lower the risk, the higher the safety. Various definitions also include a reference to the acceptability or recognisability of a risk. Examples are:
- Safety = freedom from unacceptable risk;
- Safety = the control of recognized hazards to achieve an acceptable level of risk;
- Safety = freedom from risk which is not tolerable. Safe = the state of being protected from recognised hazards that are likely to cause harm.
'Occupational safety' focuses on risks in the workplace that can cause injury to workers. It's closely related to 'Occupational health' that addresses potential health concerns of the workers. Both are combined into OSH, Occupational safety and health, that stands for "the discipline dealing with the prevention of work-related injuries and diseases as well as the protection and promotion of the health of workers. It aims at the improvement of working conditions and environment".
Safety is also concerned with the resources to manage risks. When talking about safety, the goal should be to prevent accidents, not simply to survive them. Accident prevention has traditionally been taken into account only after an accident has happened. A motivation to prevent a similar accident only appears after the accident has occurred and caused economical costs. Doing things safely is part of operational practices at individual and organisational level.
The traditional reactive way to prevent accidents, the i.e. old approach, has nowadays changed into more proactive philosophy. The concept of ‘resilience engineering’ has become more popular when considering safety in the workplace, because it is always possible that things will go wrong even though everything possible has been done to avoid this from happening. Resilience engineering defines safety as the ability to succeed under varying conditions, i.e. the ability to triumph against unpredictable challenges and to be flexible in such a way that operations can be returned to the normal with minimum damage. The design state should also include the idea that things can go wrong.
Occupational safety has a sound foundation on accident prevention. Occupational safety is concerned with all working people, both for the workers and also for those who temporarily visit a workplace. There are several recognised ways to improve occupational safety such as risk assessment, education and training, safety campaigns (for example on social media), management's commitment to safety, occupational safety and health management systems in order to improve OSH issues in a more structured and formal way , etc. All of these techniques for improving occupational safety support each other, in fact they work best when used side by side. Any accident at a workplace is a sign to management that something has gone wrong.
Safety is not a stable value: It needs not only to be maintained, but also to be improved all the time. The safety culture indicates how safety practices actually are being performed in a workplace. The safety culture refers to the ways in which an organisation’s informal aspects can influence occupational safety and health in a positive or negative way . The roots of occupational accidents may be found in the safety culture. A good safety culture has a positive influence on quality, reliability, competence and productivity of a company. Management's role on creating good safety culture is critical.
Safety culture corresponds to a set of beliefs, perceptions and attitudes that reflect the importance that individuals in the organisation attribute to safety, for themselves at the personal level, and for the safety of others. A safety culture is created and nurtured mostly through unconscious socialisation processes – It is often regarded as a social construction. 
People normally feel that safety is important, but still they take unsafe actions which may lead to an accident. In case where they consider the risks to be insignificant, individuals may take risks, i.e. unsafe acts, in order to save time , and people tend to ignore information that is inconsistent with their beliefs and preconceptions . Human errors are often seen as inevitable causes of accidents, even though the actual root causes exist behind the human actions.
Safety should be seen as a broad-spectrum concept: in addition to avoiding the previous unwanted events, the focus should be on new potential risks. Focusing solely on specific risks or practices, often leads to the neglect of other relevant issues. One such issue is shift work where some studies have demonstrated that certain shifts or shift patterns can increase the risk of injury by around 25-30%.
Improving safety decreases work accidents. The victim of an occupational accident is a person who has commitments also outside the workplace. Therefore, accident prevention is a vital factor in every workplace in order to avoid needless human suffering and economic losses. Workers’ commitment to their work and workplace may also be increased as the number of accidents at their workplace decreases: Safety is not a just physical fact, but also a feeling of working in a safe work environment.
Improved safety measures means that risks are reduced in the workplace. A number of occupational risks can be completely avoided or eliminated at workplaces. Nevertheless, it must be checked that eliminating risks does not simply transfer them, i.e. by causing risks to move to other areas. . An added bonus is that reduced risk levels make the workplace more attractive and pleasant to work, which increases productivity both at the company and individual level.
Economic aspects are important in today's working life. In the EU around 2.4 million accidents take place every year resulting in more than 3 days’ absence from work (data from 2019). The societal cost of accidents at work and occupational illness is estimated at 3.3% of the EU's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It costs individual businesses, as well as national economies. Most of the operations performed in workplaces are considered on the basis of their economical value. Improving safety can also be seen as an investment . Accidents impose extra costs for companies as well as for society at large. Furthermore, accidents entail costs and have a negative effect on the health of workers, as well as on the enterprise and on the workplace atmosphere. Accidents may also cause extra costs for the victims, I,e, at the individual level, as they cause unnecessary pain and complications for everyday life.
Lessened threat of legal action
Legislation exists to protect employees’ safety and health. Legal requirements guide workplaces into safer modes of working. The application of legal requirements increases the level of safety and reduces the likelihood of legal sanctions for non-compliance.
Reputation – Improved standing among suppliers and partners
Increased safety causes more reliable production which can result in meeting the planned schedules in a timely manner with products that fulfil the quality requirements. Conversely, accidents cause delays in production, which means that the company's reputation suffers, and it can take a long time to restore it. A public legal process, initiated because of accidents, causes long-term harm for any workplace, and particularly for a private company aiming for profitable business. A workplace that has put efforts into accident prevention has advantages – it will be seen as an attractive employer by new workers, as well as a reliable, sought after, business partner by other companies.
Safety is closely connected to productivity. Equipment and a working environment that are optimised to the needs of the working process and that are well-maintained will have a higher productivity and achieve better quality. OSH management should be integrated into the general maintenance management . Fewer accidents means less absenteeism resulting in lower costs and less disruption of the production processes. In addition, healthy workers are more productive and can produce at a higher quality.
Ways of improving safety
Learning from accidents and near misses
Good accident prevention is based on analysing what has happened in the past. It is important to understand why accidents or near miss cases have occurred and what actions can be taken to make sure they will not happen again. Finding the root causes for all accidents and near miss cases helps to identify hazards and risks in the workplace and forms the basis for adequate prevention and control strategies.
Training for safe working methods
Workers must be trained and instructed on safety and health issues . Limited safety knowledge and a low motivation for following safety procedures will both increase the number of occupational accidents. It is conceivable that those workers who have a low motivation to follow safety rules and procedures in their work, are also the ones who break the rules the most and most often. The workers must be made aware of the risks and consequences of not following safety rules – both the legal and physical consequences .
Performance measurements may be divided into reactive monitoring and active monitoring . The former means identifying and reporting on incidents (near-miss and actual incidents), and learning from mistakes, whereas the latter provides feedback on performance before an accident or incident has occurred. Lagging indicators are related to reactive monitoring and show when a desired safety outcome has failed, or when it has not been achieved. The leading indicators are a form of active monitoring (eg. monitoring different types of risks) used as inputs that are essential in demonstrating that the desired safety outcome have been achieved.
Management’s commitment to safety
Top management plays a key role when improving occupational safety, because preventing accidents and creating a better safety culture demand resources. Those leaders who value safety highly also value their employees' well-being.
While top managers’ attitudes and behaviour may drive the safety performance of organisations, the middle managers form another category of personnel that play an important role in safety and organisational change. They may have dual roles, they are close to their operators and thus contribute to the local micro-culture, but they may also be close to the management, almost like a conveyor belt taking objectives and constraints to the operators. 
In addition to having role models in improving safety, the requirements and procedures should be clearly explained and workers should be motivated to follow the safety requirements. Managers are in key position when ensuring that adequate resources are really available to ensure safe working.
Workers’ commitment to safety
Worker participation is an important part of managing health and safety. Each worker has ideas about the causes of accidents and the prevention methods. Managers do not have the solutions to all health and safety problems, while workers and their representatives have the detailed knowledge and experience of how the job is done and how it affects them. Therefore workers and managers need to work together closely to find joint solutions to common problems.
It is important that the personnel on the shop floor are involved in improving safety at their own workplace. Participation of the workers and/or their representatives is important for several reasons: The workers have a clear interest in (personal) safety, they are much more involved in the hazardous activities than their managers, and they have first-hand, often tacit, knowledge about the hazardous processes, relevant risk factors and practicalities of potential safety solutions .
Zero Accident Vision
The Zero Accident Vision is based on the assumption that all (serious) accidents are preventable. The Zero Accident Vision can be defined as "the ambition and commitment to create and ensure safe work and prevent all (serious) accidents in order to achieve safety excellence". Zero Accident Vision or Vison Zero (which is more broader and includes also health and wellbeing aspects (zero harm)) has become increasingly important. Vision Zero focusses on 'creating safety' instead of 'preventing accidents' and therefore relies on the commitment and engagement of everyone involved. Several countries have set up programmes to support Vision Zero (e.g. Finland, Germany  ) and in 2017, the International Social Security Association (ISSA) has launched a global campaign to promote Vision Zero  .
Nowadays safety is seen as a basic value for working, not only for reaching the safety level that legislation requires, but as a generally accepted attitude for doing one’s work in a safe manner. Safety will probably be seen more and more as a primary issue in workplaces and workers start to choose their workplace on the basis of the safety level of that workplace.
The public interest in safety issues in global perspective increases while companies operate worldwide. Global companies set safety values which surpass geographical frontiers. Their workforce crosses the frontiers and with this increased trend of the moving workforce, this increases also the consciousness of safe working. New technologies and new modes of working will not replace the importance of ‘safety’. The methods of maintaining safety may vary, because of new modes of risks, such as demands of’ multitasking, which requires a worker’s ability to handle safety issues at several tasks.
The employers are challenged in safety planning, when workers now change their jobs more than in the past. The workers need to be constantly trained, and re-trained, for safety in the changing workplace. Furthermore, workers need to be able to cope with a wider range of risks, resulting from new technology and methods of working. Safety is not only a physical state, but also psychological aspects must be considered while improving safety. Instead of concentrating on failures and malfunctions, increasingly the focus is on the positive outcomes of safety and the ways how these positive goals can be achieved .
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Links for further reading
EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. Management of occupational safety and health, An analysis of the findings of the second European survey of enterprises on new and emerging risks, 2018. Available at: 
EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. Occupational Safety and Health Culture Assessment – a Review of main approaches and selected tools, 2011. Available at: 
EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. Leadership and Occupational Safety and Health (OSH): an Expert Analysis, 2012. Available at: 
EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Factsheet 77 - The business benefits of good occupational safety and health. Available at: 
EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Management Leadership in Occupational Safety and Health – a practical guide. Available at: 
EU Commission, Health and safety at work is everybody’s business. Available at: 
ILO - International Labour Organisation, How can occupational safety and health be managed? Available at: 
ISSA - International Social Security Association, Vision Zero, 7 Golden Rules & Guides. Available at: