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Tap into Safety Research
July 2015, Issue 2

Tap into Safety have developed the Accident Review & Assessment for use on iPads, android tablets and the web. The application takes the user on a journey from the point of a serious accident or near miss to feed back the learning from investigations and train how to complete the task safely. The application is customised within our template to work on scenarios pertinent to the risks in your organisation.

wellbeing_awareness_and_assessment   Accident Review
topic under review
In this issue we review a paper from recognised author Andrew Hopkins, published in Safety Science in August 2014. The title of the article is “Issues in Safety Science” and the full article can be obtained from the link below. The title is very broad and it’s not until you get into the paper that it reveals some interesting insight for health and safety professionals. The paper is easy to read and includes interesting accident and organisational examples that defend Hopkins’ arguments.
The boundaries of safety science

The paper begins with a brief discussion about ‘gate-keeping’ by safety journal editors in publishing articles that may interest the safety community but are reliant on the expertise of journal reviewers. Hopkins questions what should/not be included in journals such as Safety Science and suggests that “as the safety science community evolves, so too will the subject” (p.2). He points to the effect on the ‘science’ in publishing content that is ‘fashionable’ and argues that “influencing the content of the journal in this way necessarily influences the boundaries of safety science itself” (p.2).


Popular theories - normal theory


In the paper, Hopkins interrogates three popular theories in safety science: Normal Accident Theory, High Reliability Theory and Resilience Engineering. Normal Accident Theory was established through the seminal work of Charles Perrow who argued that major accidents in many hazardous technical systems are inevitable no matter how well the system is managed. Hopkins questions the usefulness of this theory in explaining accidents that have occurred and suggests that it has little relevance because no accident is a ‘normal accident’. Moreover, both Perrow and Hopkins conclude that major accidents occur as a result of “organisational ineptitude” and “sloppy management” (p2).


“The problem is this. Accident analyses are backward looking. Making recommendations is forward looking.”


HRO & Resilience Engineering

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The second theory that Hopkins discusses is theory of High Reliability Organisations (HROs). He defines a HRO as “organisations that operated with hazardous technology in a ‘nearly accident-free’ manner, or with many fewer accidents than might have been expected” (p.3). However, this definition is too imprecise to distinguish between HROs and non-HROs. Hopkins argues that this leaves HRO Theory in a ‘strange kind of limbo’ as there is no way that we can demonstrate that HROs are safer than non-HROs. Following the work of Weick & Sutcliffe (2001) HROs have come to be known as ‘mindful’ organisations and the popularity of this term has gathered momentum in the last decade.


The final theory Hopkins examines is Resilience Engineering. Hopkins struggles with the way Resilience Engineering purports to be offering itself as something new, when he argues that the concepts are mostly a rebadging of HRO theory.


Major accident analysis


Hopkins extends the article with a discussion about the problem of drawing policy recommendations from major accident investigations. He argues that “The problem is this. Accident analyses are backward looking. Making recommendations is forward looking” (p.5). Hopkins suggests that as safety professionals to reduce the risk of a major accident we make recommendations based on evidence of past experience. However, he argues that no two major accidents are ever the same and that recommendations made on past analysis will even reduce the likelihood of future accidents appreciably. Based on this lack of ‘systematic correlational evidence’ we rely on ‘expert judgment’ that is formed through experience to inform recommendations. Hopkins argues that “expert judgement draws on data beyond the case in question” to provide a “sounder basis for action” than merely relying on the analysis of a specific major accident (p.5).



This paper concludes with a call to question our reliance on age old theories in accident investigation learning and recommendations. Hopkins provocatively concludes the paper with the statement that “there is in fact a fundamental disconnect between the causal analysis of major accidents and the recommendations that often emerge from those analyses” (p.8). Food for thought?

Reference: Hopkins, A. (2014). Issues in safety science, Safety Science, Vol. 67, pp.6-14. Available at:
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