No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

The Managed World of Safety

Though every creature harbors a spark of the divine, it seems increasingly difficult to believe in this spark amidst the societal conditions of our administered world. – Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer & Eugen Kogon, 1950

Companies and industries often try to standardize work. They break down tasks into basic steps and select people based on their abilities to ensure constant performance. The goal is to find ONE BEST WAY to carry out tasks, in order to eliminate waste and improve productivity. Companies try to keep the variability of output within acceptable limits. Their safety management systems are often based on standardization and linear cause-effect reasoning. That’s an efficient way to work, but not so thorough. In the dynamic sociotechnical systems of today, many unforeseen things happen. Doing the moves our management systems prescribe – and handling issues one by one – often gets in the way of getting real-time information about what happens, which could give a clue about possible improvements of the system. How is it that we are stuck in this managed world?

A safety management system can undermine the essence of human work; it can reduce employees to mere functions. Safety management systems serve bureaucratic and economic interests – these systems must be in place because companies are held responsible for continuously improving safety. But do they support people performing their work safely? Well, the evidence is inconclusive. On the positive side, SMSs became more consistent and compliant and allow regulators to provide guidance and recommendations during audits. Mandatory rest periods and emergency training are often viewed positively by the crew. What is also clear is that the SMS introduces administrative burdens. It also introduces potential disconnects between formal procedures and practical operations. SMSs can become overly extensive, which hinders setting adequate priorities. The ritualization of safety work might result in tick-and-flick behavior. Added to this, employees accustomed to informal procedures resist extensively formalized safety work, especially when it detracts from their practical seamanship.

As safety practitioners, it’s important to reflect on the broader implications of living in an administered society. Our role often involves functioning within a highly structured and controlled environment. While administration is necessary from an assurance perspective, it can also lead to a loss of personal agency and creativity among workers. If the balance between human work and documented work is off in favor of documentation, we focus on ticking boxes instead of keeping the conversation about uncertainties in work going. Recognizing this tension can help in developing humane and empowering work practices. In safety management, this means not just enforcing rules and regulations but also encouraging personal adaptability and innovative problem-solving among employees.

Despite what sociologists have called the overwhelming nature of a managed existence, the potential for genuine human relations remains. As safety practitioners, we need to work collectively with players at the regulatory level, and with management and workers, to ensure that protocols don’t dehumanize workers. This involves questioning whether activities are truly effective for working safely or if they are simply fulfilling regulatory requirements. Do these measures reduce the risks workers face, or are they simply a form of window dressing to please regulators and clients? If the latter is the case, mediation between representatives from regulator, clients and contractors could bring systemic change.



Hollnagel, E. (2021), Synesis – The Unification of Productivitiy, Quality, Safety and Reliability, Abingdon/New York: Routledge.

Kristine Vedal Størkersen, Stian Antonsen & Trond Kongsvik (2017), One size fits all? Safety management regulation of ship accidents and personal injuries, Journal of Risk Research, 20:9, 1154-1172, DOI: 10.1080/13669877.2016.1147487

The Managed World / Theodor W. Adorno / ...working until the 1970s / Sociologists | Unter Soziologen / Among Sociologists