I attended the Australian Rail Safety Conference 2010 in Melbourne this week.
The conference’s theme was safety leadership and as a result we had a broad spread of corporate executives present providing their views on the leadership aspect of safety.
As expected the focus was on organisational safety and the role of management in promoting that culture by leading organisational change.
So while I found the conference very interesting from a general standpoint, there wasn’t much from a systems (i.e. product) safety perspective. I did however note down some memorable quotes (my apologies for any errors in transcription) from various speakers:
“Learn from the mistakes of others, because you’ll not live long enough to make them all yourself”
John Guselli, Australian Advisory Board Flight Safety Foundation, quoting James Lederer
“Detailed design is not about a spatial geometry problem, it’s about access, operability and producibility”
Bruce Farrar, CEO Robson Civil Projects
“When you divest yourself of standards you are in effect taking a ‘cultural gamble’ … standards are not an end in themselves but are there to help people learn and achieve competence.”
Michael Carter, Exec General Manager QR Network
“You can’t manage, what you can’t measure … hard measurement is important in soft systems and processes”
What was for me the most important underlying theme that emerged from the conference was the enormous investment of time and effort that these organisations needed to make in order to affect, and sustain changes in personal and corporate safety behaviour.
The second most important theme was how fragile most speakers viewed such cultures. As far as I’m aware no speaker during the conference expressed absolute satisfaction with their organisations safety performance or it’s robustness.
This effort to achieve ‘procedural’ safety in inherently hazardous endeavours, and it’s fragility, is in my experience something that is usually underestimated by design teams when they sit down to allocate out the safety functions of the system.
While humans are amazingly flexible and creative, we’re also inherently error prone so achieving high levels of safety using them alone requires a significant corporate effort, something that designers should carefully consider.