Safety is our Top Priority?
A look behind the phrase “safety is our top priority”, and what it reveals about the definition of “safety”.
“Safety is our top priority,” says the captain of the airliner as I settle into my seat. I have considered myself a safety specialist in the oil and gas industry for over 30 years, so that’s a great way to get my attention. It sets me thinking, or daydreaming rather, along the following lines.
What does it mean?
What does it mean for safety to be the priority? For a moment, I imagine a world where safety is more important than anything else, triumphing over lesser concepts such as speed, economy or getting to our destination. Imagine this: “Safety is our top priority, so we have cancelled the flight and ask you to wait in your seats while we figure out how to get you back to the terminal without crossing the air-bridge or using any stairs”. Of course not: safety does not mean zero risk. We all know that zero risk is unattainable.
In reality the captain says, “Safety is our top priority, so please listen carefully to the following announcement about the action you should take in the unlikely event of an emergency”.
I wonder how such a grand statement of priorities can boil down to such a modest request to pay attention to a briefing?
Perhaps it is a meaningless cliché like, “I hope you enjoy your flight”, designed to reassure the nervous passenger. But aircraft captains are highly trained to speak accurately and succinctly. I prefer to think they have a precise meaning in mind. After all, the airline industry  asserts exactly the same message: “Safety is the number one priority for the aviation industry”.
The Definition of Safety
What exactly does the word “safety” mean? According to the Oxford Dictionary , “safety” means “the condition of being protected from or unlikely to cause danger, risk, or injury”.
Safety specialists often follow the vocabulary guide  of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which defines safety as “freedom from unacceptable risk of harm”.
My pilot may be thinking of the Safety Management Manual  of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which explains that:
“Within the context of aviation, safety is the state in which the possibility of harm to persons or of property damage is reduced to, and maintained at or below, an acceptable level through a continuing process of hazard identification and safety risk management.”
To my mind, these definitions all leave the degree of protection slightly vague. They leave me asking: what exactly does “unacceptable risk” mean?
The Definition of Unacceptable Risk
The topic of risk acceptability is rather complex and contested, and it might be considered unhelpful to link the definition of safety to it. However, I think we can distinguish two main approaches to defining unacceptable risk:
- The first approach sees a clear boundary between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” risks. Once these criteria are met, we can say with confidence that the risk is acceptable.
- The second approach sees a grey area, in which risk is acceptable once it has been balanced against other priorities. For example, it may be necessary to make risks “as low as reasonably practicable”, taking account of the costs and benefits of further safety improvements.
This distinction is important because it hints at two different ways of thinking about safety, which I will spell out in a moment.
Incidentally, while the ISO definition at first seems consistent with the first of these approaches, it then seems to lean towards the second approach when it adds the following explanatory note to its definition of safety quoted above:
“NOTE In standardization, the safety of products, processes and services is generally considered with a view to achieving the optimum balance of a number of factors, including non-technical factors such as human behaviour, that will eliminate avoidable risks of harm to persons and goods to an acceptable degree.”
This seems to say that safety inevitably involves the optimisation of relevant influences, which is much more than the simplicity implied by “freedom from unacceptable risk”.
Safety as a Priority
This leads us to the point where we can ask what it means for safety to be a priority. Returning to the Oxford Dictionary, “priority” means “being regarded or treated as more important than others”. So when we say “safety is our top priority”, it begs the question: what are our other, lesser priorities?
The other possible priorities are the things we might want to achieve as well as safety, such as efficiency, economy, environmental protection, productivity, equality etc.
When we do something inherently hazardous, like flying in an aeroplane, how is it then possible to say that safety is our priority? Surely, we also want the flight to be cheap, quick and get us where we want to go. It would also be nice for it to be enjoyable and accessible, with a low environmental impact. How can safety be seen as a priority ahead of these?
Two Conceptions of Safety
To answer this, I think we need to distinguish two slightly different conceptions of safety, corresponding to the two definitions of unacceptable risk above.
One conception is that safety is an absolute state, which one either has or does not have. One can then ask, “Is the activity safe?” and expect to receive the answer yes or no. This makes safety a bit like an electronic component which is either failed or working. I see it as a “checklist” approach: once the essential safety measures are adopted, safety is ensured. This approach suits an airline pilot, who uses a checklist to ensure all preparations for the flight are complete. Then it is reasonable to say, “Safety is our priority”, because the specified safety measures (including listening to the safety briefing) must be completed before the flight is allowed to take off.
The second conception of safety is as a variable quantity, which one can have to a greater or lesser extent. This makes safety a flexible concept like efficiency, economy, sustainability and productivity. It can be traded off against these in the search for an optimum balance. This approach is helpful in design and management, because it motivates a continual search to improve safety. It implies that every decision is open to question: is it really optimal, and is it sufficient? This approach suits a safety specialist, for whom these questions are always open, but it would be impractical for an airline pilot, who does not have time for an optimisation process before every take-off.
So finally I can relax and feel ready to fly. The pilot and I have slightly different conceptions of safety, which reflect our roles in the world of safety. The pilot sees safety as the first priority, which is achieved by following the safety checklist before focussing on an on-time take-off. Although I call myself a safety specialist, I see safety as only one of several objectives, which can always be increased through greater effort, but at progressively greater cost to other objectives. Such optimisation is the core of my daily work, but I have far fewer decisions to make each day than a pilot. I reassure myself that another safety specialist has embodied these decisions in the aircraft’s design and operating procedures. Without my interference, the pilot manages to take off on time.
 International Air Transport Association, “Annual Review 2013”, http://www.iata.org/about/documents/iata-annual-review-2013-en.pdf
 International Organization for Standardization, “Guide 2 – Standardization and Related Activities – General Vocabulary”, 2004. http://www.iso.org/iso/catalogue_detail.htm?csnumber=39976
 International Civil Aviation Organization, “Safety Management Manual”, 2013. http://www.icao.int/safety/SafetyManagement/Documents/Doc.9859.3rd%20Edition.alltext.en.pdf