On the ontology of safety

Studio Apertura

​This article explores the philosophical foundations of a selection of safety science approaches through investigating the modus operandi of their development and use. It explicitly addresses the importance of distinguishing ontology from epistemology, a claim expressed in the call for papers for this special issue. The importance of rigorous methods when comparing scientific traditions is emphasised, a rigorousness that in this article is ensured by analysing the different safety science approaches from the same point of reference. The underlying ontology of Normal Accident Theory,

High Reliability Organisations and Resilience Engineering is explored, as seen through the lens of the prevailing ontology of science and technology studies (STS). The article draws two conclusions. The first is of a theoretical nature: Slightly counterintuitive perhaps, especially considering the enduring debate between Normal Accident Theory and High Reliability Organisations, the three approaches are all found to be based on the same sociotechnical constructivist ontology.

The second conclusion explains the ontological difference between the safety theoretical approaches as not grounded in their philosophical underpinnings, but in the way that the results from the ‘original’ studies are adopted and operationalised. This conclusion also illuminates a common and fundamental relational aspect of these safety theories and the danger of compromising their philosophical underpinnings when key concepts of the approaches are decontextualised, black-boxed and adopted uncritically in a new context.