A 2013 white paper by Professors Erik Hollnagel, Robert L Wears and Jeffrey Braithwaite came to redefine the way we see safety with the introduction of a new definition at the scope: The ‘Safety II’ concept argues that we should stop focusing only on how to stop things from going wrong but emphasize on why things go right instead. The ‘Safety-II’ perspective acts as an evolutionary complement of the conventional safety thinking, referred as ‘Safety I’.

Safety I takes accidents as the focus point and tries to prevent bad things from occurring, while Safety-II is emphasizing on ensuring that as much as possible goes right, expanding much more than the area of incident prevention and promoting a real safety management over a simple risk assessment.

In a more simplified way, the new safety concept comes to dislodge the interest from ’what goes wrong’ to ‘what goes right’, reminding that safety management should not only be reactive, but proactive as well.

An accident investigation under the scope of Safety-I is to identify the causes of adverse outcomes, while risk assessment aims to determine their likelihood. On the contrary, accident investigations under Safety-II seek to understand how things usually go right, as this forms the basis for explaining how things go wrong, while risk assessment aims ‘to understand the conditions where performance variability can become difficult to control’.

Notably, the new concept does not seek to supersede what is already being done, but to complement the current approach, which means that many of the existing practices can continue to be used, just ‘with a different emphasis’. However, one cannot exist without the other.


Safety I Safety II
Learn from our errors Learn from our successes
Safety defined by absence Safety defined by presence
Reactive approach Proactive approach
Understand what goes wrong Understand what goes right
Accident causation Repeat what goes right
Avoid errors Enforce successful behaviors
Reduce losses Create new process on successful behaviour


Challenges ahead

But what makes the transition to Safety II necessary? Continuously disruptive technology, which makes navigation much more complex than it used to be, could be enough, but this is not the only answer.

In ‘Safety II’, humans are seen as a resource necessary for flexibility and resilience. But in an era where human error is attributed to the majority of maritime casualties, the view of humans as a safeguard and not a liability will be the foremost challenge.

In this respect, a starting point for organizations interested in Safety II is to emphasize on enhancing their employees’ resilience, as the ability to monitor things and handle situations.

The way forward for a change of mentality seems long in an industry which has traditionally learned to shed focus on near miss reporting, but not on positive reporting, to claim liability but care less on praising exceptionally good performance.


A Safety-II approach assumes that everyday performance variability provides the adaptations that are needed to respond to varying conditions, and hence is the reason why things go right.

The transition to this approach was a key topic of the 2018 SAFETY4SEA Conference in Athens, where global experts focused on how the industry can change mindset and embrace Safety II.  Namely, the last two panels centred around safety aspects describing why until today shipping has adopted Safety I concept, with panellists suggesting ways to move forward.