This article explores the concept of safety and the various definitions used in the occupational safety and health field. While some cultures do not have a safe word, agreeing that safety means being free from harm and recognizing hazards is fundamental. The article delves deeper into the definitions of safety used by leading organizations such as the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP), Behavior-Based Safety (BBS), Human Performance (HP), National Safety Council (NSC), Safety Management System (SMS), and Systems Safety Engineering. These definitions highlight the importance of hazard identification, risk management, and ongoing attention to maintain safety. Ultimately, the article emphasizes the need to define safety within an organization’s safety management system to ensure that risks and hazards are eliminated or controlled to acceptable levels, protecting individuals from physical, emotional, and psychological harm in the workplace and other settings.
What does it mean to be safe, or what does safety mean? Some cultures do not have a word for safe or safety. Instead, what would be closer described as secure or security? If we cannot agree on what safe or safety means, how can we ever achieve it?
First, we must agree on the meaning of safe and safe. There are several definitions used in the occupational safety and health field. Safety is not getting hurt or the presence of controls. At a fundamental level, we can agree that safety means free from harm, and safety means free from the recognized hazards that cause harm. Nevertheless, doesn’t it mean more than being free from harm or hazards that cause harm?
Let us dive deeper and discuss some of the leading definitions of safety. This article examines how ASSP, BBS, HP, NSC, and Safety System Engineering define safety.
American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP)
The American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) defines safety as the “state in which the risk of harm to persons or property damage is reduced to, and maintained at or below, an acceptable level through a continuing process of hazard identification and risk management.” This definition emphasizes the importance of identifying potential hazards and implementing measures to reduce the risk of harm to an acceptable level.
Behavior-Based Safety (BBS)
Behavior-Based Safety (BBS) is an approach that emphasizes the role of human behavior in safety. According to the BBS philosophy, safety results from behaviors that reduce or eliminate the risk of injury or illness. BBS focuses on identifying and changing unsafe behaviors through positive reinforcement and coaching.
One source that discusses this definition is “The Handbook of Behavior-Based Safety” by E. Scott Geller and Robert A. Brinkerhoff. In this book, the authors describe BBS as “a process that creates a safety partnership between management and employees that continually focuses people’s attentions and actions on theirs, and others, daily safety behavior.” (Geller & Brinkerhoff, 2010, p. 5).
Human Performance (HP)
Human Performance is an approach to safety that recognizes human error is inevitable and seeks to identify and address the underlying causes of error. According to the Human Performance Improvement Handbook by the US Department of Energy, safety is defined as “the state in which the risk of harm to persons or property damage is reduced to, and maintained at or below, an acceptable level through a continuing process of hazard identification and risk management.” This definition emphasizes the need for ongoing attention to hazards and risks to maintain safety.
National Safety Council (NSC)
The National Safety Council (NSC) defines safety as “the state in which risks and hazards are eliminated or controlled to acceptable levels so that people are not harmed.” This definition includes ensuring individuals are free from physical, emotional, and psychological harm in the workplace and other settings.
Safety Management System (SMS)
The ANSI/AIHA Z10-2012 standard for Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems defines safety as the “freedom from unacceptable risk of harm.” It includes the prevention of injuries and illnesses, protection of the physical and psychological well-being of workers, and the preservation of property and the environment.
The ISO Safety Management System (SMS) defines safety as “freedom from unacceptable risk of harm.” This definition considers the risk of harm from a particular activity or situation. It emphasizes the need to manage risks to an acceptable level rather than eliminating them.
Systems Safety Engineering
Systems Safety Engineering is an approach to safety that focuses on designing and operating systems to identify and mitigate hazards. It involves a systematic process of hazard identification, risk assessment, and risk mitigation to reduce the likelihood of accidents and minimize their impact.
One definition of Systems Safety Engineering comes from the Department of Defense Standard Practice for System Safety (MIL-STD-882E), defined as “a specialty of system engineering that supports programs in managing risk to the system, people, and environment throughout the life cycle of the system.”
The meaning of safety is not universal and can vary between cultures and contexts. However, at a fundamental level, safety means freedom from harm or recognized hazards that cause harm. Different organizations and approaches to safety may have varying definitions of safety. Still, they all emphasize the importance of hazard identification, risk management, and ongoing attention to maintain safety. Defining safety and safety management within an organization’s safety management system is crucial to achieving a shared understanding and a culture of safety. Ultimately, safety is a continuing process that requires collaboration between management and employees to ensure the well-being of individuals and property.
American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP). (2021). Definition of Safety. Retrieved from https://www.assp.org/about/definition-of-safety
American National Standards Institute. (2012). Occupational health and safety management systems. ANSI/AIHA Z10-2012.
Christ, G., (2022). NSC 2015: Redefining Safety – Living in the Context, Not the Consequence. Ehstoday.com. https://www.ehstoday.com/safety-leadership/article/21917131/nsc-2015-redefining-safety-living-in-the-context-not-the-consequence
Geller S. E. (2001). How to Get More People Involved in Behavior-Based Safety: Selling an Effective Process. Cambridge Center. http://www.behavior.org/resources/332.pdf
Geller, E. S., & Brinkerhoff, R. A. (2010). The handbook of behavior-based safety. CRC Press.
International Organization for Standardization. (2018). ISO 45001:2018 Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems – Requirements with guidance for use. https://www.iso.org/standard/63787.html
Lawrence, J. W. (1996). Software safety hazard analysis. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. https://www.osti.gov/servlets/purl/201805
National Safety Council. (2021). NSC Safety Glossary. Retrieved from https://www.nsc.org/-/media/NSC/Document/NSC-Safety-Glossary.ashx
US Department of Energy. (2010). Human Performance Improvement Handbook, Volume 1: Concepts and Principles. Washington, DC: Office of Health, Safety and Security.
United States Department of Defense. (2012). Standard Practice for System Safety (MIL-STD-882E).