Thought leaders in the safety community have known for many years that safe decision making is an essential element in the complex of factors that go into making a safe workplace. But until the last ten years or so, we hadn't realized two critically important things:

  1. The people making the most important safety decisions are not frontline workers. Workers have a role, but the most critical role in safe decision making is the one played by leadership.

  2. Leadership decision making is pivotal to the understanding and prevention of serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs).

In this paper, we will examine the evidence for these statements, as well as the implications that follow, for policy, strategy and the role of senior leaders in SIF prevention.

The Role of Decision Making in Safety
New Research in Brain Science and Implications for Safety

There has been extensive research in psychology, and more specifically in brain science, over the last 20 years that has deepened our understanding of decision making. An entirely new field has developed that examines the cognitive processes involved, and identifies natural failures in the process that undermine sound decision making. Based on this body of research, Tom Krause and Kristen Bell began to study its implications on safety performance improvement. Questions began to arise about how this science could be applied, particularly to the prevention of serious injuries and fatalities. How important is decision making? Who makes safety-related decisions? Which decisions are most important? Could safety be improved through development of decision-making skills and knowledge?

The Decision-making Study: Who, What, When and How

In 2015, Krause and Bell conducted a study to answer these questions. Along with their partners at ORCHSE Strategies (formerly Organization Resource Counselors), they developed a research project that examined decision making that led to serious injury and fatality (SIF) events. Decisions were analyzed across 60 SIF events across multiple industries, and the aggregate data showed promising insights. The study was coined the safe decision making (SDM) study.

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