Amsterdam Safety Symposium - A brief overview

Having just returned from this great event let’s do a brief and rather spontaneous overview of two days of learning and sharing with safety professionals from all over the world (literally I believe every continent was represented). And probably just as importantly: finally meeting the people one has discussed with online or directly per e-mail in the real world. It is interesting to be confronted with how misleading your expectations can be from a profile picture, especially in relation to height!


Some participants already had the opportunity to meet the day before and the atmosphere was extremely positive from the start. Pieter Jan Bots (left above) opened the event, briefly explaining its background, introducing the organizational team and the location (WTC Triple Ace was a great venue, by the way, very professional, spacious and good to reach). Then he handed over to chairman for the days to come, Ralf Schnoerringer (middle above), who did a great job introducing the various speakers and keeping things in accordance to schedule as much as possible.

The first keynote speaker was Eric Heijnsbroek (right above), formerly of Tata Steel. Eric kicked off the first part of the Symposium, dedicated to how safety fits into production and his own experiences with safety in his period in Tata. This included an incident that happened “on his watch” where a known hazard was ignored for a long time by both management and employees. It took a serious accident to do something about the situation. One of the things that Tata introduced recently are so-called ‘safety teams’ where people from the work floor are taken out of their ordinary job for a month to work solely with safety in a practical manner and implement improvements. One of Eric’s messages was that our job is to make people feel uncomfortable.

James Loud then talked about “Taking Safety Seriously”, touching upon some (in the safety community) sensitive issues. He identified some of the symptoms of non-serious safety, argued that we should question professional traditions and stop managing to the metric. Instead of the often practiced Plan - Do - Hope - Pray cycle we really should start doing Plan - Do - Check/Study - Act.

After this the audience split up in several smaller groups for a workshop to discuss how they could support production and where the challenges are. Topics that were raised in the feedback session included Communication, Participation, Ownership, Culture (in various forms), Attitude and Acting on input. Jim Loud commented in this session that “We cannot define all behaviours and then operand condition people. It’s a compliance approach and a wrong one”.

Andy Stirling covered a lot of ground as keynote speaker of the second part of the Symposium which dealt with Resilience, Antifragility and Business Continuity. Andy’s presentation was titled “Risk, Resilience and Precaution: from sound science to participatory process”. Many people, especially policy makers want (or claim) to base their decisions on sound science and evidence, but science is not as black and white as people tend to believe - as illustrated by results from various energy studies. More often we should therefore be more focused on asking the right questions than trying to answer correctly and precaution may often be a prudent choice. Uncertainty require deliberation and especially Safety Professional must not try to use their proverbial hammer (i.c. Risk Assessments) in situations where it’s not appropriate, e.g. because we do not have sufficient knowledge about possible consequences or likelihood. So we should allow for greater skepticism and not make complex problems seemingly simple by crunching everything into a misleading number. Do mind: this does NOT stand in the way of decision making. The value of participation is not agreement, but having the opportunity to see things from different angles.

Linda Bellamy talked about “Safety and Resilience in the face of Uncertainty”. For this she was able to draw on the recent results of a European research project where a number of people in high-risk occupations (e.g. mountain guides) have been interviewed about the elements that help them to succeed in their hazardous jobs. The aim is to find elements that create success and model these in a ‘Success BowTie’. One interesting item for further discussion proved to be the Safety I - Safety II approaches and if we are actually able to learn from success, or only from failure (as one of the interviewees in the project had posed).

Carsten Busch and Nick Gardener took on the effort to do the Symposium’s only duo presentation, arguing we should be “Agile not Fragile”. Together they explained some key concepts from Nassim Taleb’s latest book “Antifragility” and applying this to safety. In the process they used an egg (broke because it was fragile), rock (very robust, more so than the stage floor) and bouncing ball (very agile and anti-fragile). Key messages were that it is easier to detect that something is fragile than that one can predict an accident from happening, that one shouldn’t fear disorder but balance it with some (but not too much) order and that tinkering is a good way of creating robustness, improvement and maybe even antifragility.

Piet Snoeck from Belgium talked about “Creating robust supply chain management by including new product regulations”. A solid discussion of challenges around robust supply chain management what is needed (processes/tools should be in place to assure product compliance) and how this can be accomplished (how the various actors within a company could act together).

Cary Usrey was the second speaker from the USA. He had the tough task of doing the final presentation of the day, something which he mastered very well with a lot of energy, humour and interaction. His “Seven Steps to Safety Sustainability” (note: not THE Seven Steps…) started with discussing John Kotter’s Process for Leading Change and then went one-by-one through seven important steps and the barriers that must be understood and overcome when following the process. One comment that sparked a lot of discussion from the audience was the often used ‘retraining’ as corrective action after an incident. As Cary rightly comments this is often little useful because it’s generally not lack of skill that is the problem.

The first day was closed with a Panel Discussion where most speakers from the day were invited to answer to questions from the audience. Among others the discussion from Linda Bellamy’s presentation about Safety I and II was continued here and various viewpoints on if one could only learn from failure, or also from success (e.g. by looking at things that went right, such that near misses did not become accidents).

After that a very fruitful first Day was over although a ‘core group’ decided to continue further discussions with drinks in the bar just across the conference center - introducing some foreigners to the pleasures of Belgian beers. Later that night participants joined up for a very nice dinner together downtown (and the most resilient extended this with a visit to the Irish pub and a city tour by night).

Jop Groeneweg was asked to open Day 2 and Part 3 of the Symposium with the themes of Risk Perception and Risk Assessment. Jop centered his presentation (humorous, engaging and energetic as always) on the subject of Risk perception. As an opener to illustrate risk perception he chose the current ebola scare and how (media fueled) risk perception dominates in the Western world while the actual risk in e.g. The Netherlands can be considered very low. Jop contrasted the views on various ‘thinkers’ (Spock, Simon, Kahneman and Fischhoff) to rationality and thinking about risk. One possibility to affect our risk perception, according to Jop, is to get our System 1 thinking engaged. Because of this one useful approach may be to adopt to a greater degree red flag systems - we are very well equipped to spot deviations and we should react on these and pose questions, instead of risk assessing everything. He also warned about the difference between the ‘paper world’ and the ‘real world’ - quite often management systems are in place and we are lulled into sleep by these.

Due to some unforeseen circumstances the intended parallel sessions had to be rearranged ending up with all presentations after each other. This only proved the antifragility of the group of people assembled and of the speakers who rose to the challenge and made it happen within the allotted time (even allowing for getting lunch and eating it during the presentations).

Beate Karlsen kicked off and talked in a very practical way about her experiences with what she called “Situation Blindness in Risk Assessment”. The biases and perceptions people enter a risk assessment with are things we often are not aware of, but which can affect the result (or the resources used) in a most significant way. Being aware of them we are able to tackle this problem, e.g. by asking questions to drill down to the real problem.

Frank Verschueren (the only representative from a regulator on the program) discussed a number of viewpoints on Risk Evaluation Methodologies and the challenges he has experienced in his work as an inspector. There is no one-size-fits-all approach and choice of methodology is relevant. Focus on the Worst Case gives often too much compression. One advised approach is using LOPA.

Thierry Lievre-Cormier shared some thoughts about “Risk Assessments in the Future”. He did a very visual presentation discussing: 1) Understanding risk and hazards, 2) Understanding design safety limits, 3) Understanding the precautions and 4) Keeping the precautions effective. After this he took a brief glimpse at future possibilities.

Linda Wright asked the question “Risk Ranking is Easy?”. During a recent research project on the site where she works she has looked into the question if people are using risk matrices consistently: how is the risk matrix used and what is the level of agreement between three groups of users: Managers, Safety Experts and Operators. The result was quite an eye opener as there was little agreement between the users. In all scenarios all possible combinations were provided by the users, showing that the risk ranking matrix is highly subjective and not easy to use. Interestingly Managers scored consistently lower than Safety Experts.

Mona Tveraaen showed a “Dissident view on Risk Acceptance Criteria” and built a strong argument against quantitative RAC (actually on RAC in general). Some of the arguments included that RAC draw the wrong kind of attention, use too much resources, they are not fit to be both ambitious and represent the current situation at the same time, they obscure a lot of information (not showing uncertainties, assumptions etc.) and they take away the decision making from the responsible persons giving it to experts. Instead one should use ALARP as the guiding principle for everything that isn’t ‘broadly acceptable’ or ‘broadly unacceptable’. She also made it clear to the audience that it is possible in Norway to buy a return ticket from Hell, and even a ticket from Hell to Paradis...

Dov Basel from Israel presented the interesting “Separation Distances Dilemma”. Israel is among the most densely inhabited countries in the world which means that it’s very hard to keep industrial or technical installations with hazardous materials (e.g. NH3) and the public separated. A number of challenges (not only safety, but also legal and financial) were discussed and some solutions presented.

Frank Guldenmund was the keynote speaker for the fourth and final part of the Symposium. He gave a thorough introduction into the subject of Safety Culture, by first covering a lot of ground about what culture is in a really practical way, for example by discussion the different perceptions of a seemingly simple act like a handshake. His presentation contained 16 (or more?) key lessons from various observations and summed these up in a number of ‘Don’ts’. The self-confessed academic did a great job of explaining a really difficult subject in a very understandable and easy way. (for those who aren’t familiar with his book on Safety Culture yet, find it here)

For Safety Culture the original parallel sessions went more or less according to program. Johan Roels opened the ‘New Perspectives’ section that took place in a smaller side-room. Interestingly that room filled up rather well, obviously quite a few people had become curious about what this ‘Silly Belgian Engineer’ (his own designation!) had to say. Without any doubt Johan had the presentation with most passion and a great interaction with the audience (the smaller room actually facilitated this). Johan explained why he felt that safety needed another paradigm (or mind set, or whatever word one chooses) and what he saw as a possible way forward, using creative interchange, getting away from fear and the vicious circle we often are locked into. He argued to abandon the traditional top-down, outside-in approach and go for an inside-out approach that travels ALL directions.

Arthur van Rossem’s presentation “Zero-Tolerance: Enforcement of working conditions laws in the Netherlands” brought yet another viewpoint to the Symposium, namely that of a lawyer. A very solid presentation about how the Dutch system of fines and prosecution of breaking the Safety and Health at Work regulations works which may have given some lessons to the many foreigners in the audience.

Regrettably it was impossible to be at two places at the same time during the parallel sessions in the afternoon, so I missed Anja Dijkman about “How to Engage Company Management to Improve Safety Leadership” and in the “Practical Experiences” stream Pieter Jan Bots speaking about the role of the supervisor and Ralf Schnoerringer about Contractor Management and Safety Management Implementation. Even worse, because of the fact that the two sessions had gotten out of sync, I only experienced Greg Shankland’s (above) closing remarks on “Bluprint for Safety” (a session I really wanted to see!), so I was heavily tempted to reply to the “Are there any questions for Greg” with a “Could you please repeat the last 20 minutes”… His main message was that your culture determines how well your safety systems work and there are tools to facilitate this. From the audience I sensed good response and quite a few questions were asked.

In the main hall then a rather spontaneous panel discussion was organized where some of the speakers (Dov, Mona, Greg, Ralf, Cary and Carsten) from the last two days were invited to respond to questions with regard to safety culture and risk assessment/handling. Some of the discussion was about the pros and (mainly) cons of incentive systems for reporting. Most of the speakers agreed that it should be about the actions that come from it, and not about gadgets or even money. Another subject was related to Dov’s presentation and it was discussed how various countries handled the problems of storing or transporting large quantities of hazardous substances in areas where many people live.

As part of the closing ceremony, Pieter Jan Bots once more entered the stage and asked Johan Roels to join him to receive the Black Swan Award for doing the most daring and passionate presentation. This honour was absolutely deserved. Congratulations to Johan!

Summing up: days well spent! A BIG thank you to all the presenters and organizers that put a lot of effort in making this a great event. It certainly would have been great if even more group members had participated in the event, but chances are that there will be another opportunity for that in the future since consensus was that this shouldn’t be a one-off event! Watch out for a new date in 2015!?