Identifying and Removing Safety Clutter
Organisations are committed to the narrative that progress in safety is measured by the growth of safety systems (Amalberti, 2013) and relaxing rules and decluttering is a signal of lack of commitment to the ideal that every accident can and should be prevented (Zwetsloot et al., 2013).
Safety clutter is the excessive accrual of procedures, documents, roles and activities that are performed in the name of safety but do not contribute to the safety of operations. Safety clutter harms both safety and productivity but is difficult to remove due to concerns about compliance, liability, and reputational risk and also because that same clutter can hamper innovation and ultimately get in the way of getting work done. The bureaucratisation of safety – using the top-down approach – leads to things like analysing hazards, developing registers and lists of ways things can go wrong, trying to restrict the way work happens by putting in place controls, reducing the natural variation in work and introducing things that monitor work and raise alarms when things vary. There is a ratchet effect going on – every time an accident or ‘incident’ occurs – there is an investigation and recommendations are made to add in more procedures or checklists. Strong evidence suggests that safety clutter damages employee ownership of safety, it’s based for adaptability, it erodes trust and creates an unnecessary trade-off between safety and productivity. However, organisations can take practical steps to avoid the pressure in adding unhelpful safety by creating evidence-based mechanisms that identify and removes clutter, having conversations about clutter, finding the low hanging fruit, conducting a controlled trial for removing a piece of clutter and finally redefining the role of safety professionals in creating safety.