What is it?

Resilience is the ability to bounce back. In safety terms, resilience is the ability of system a to adjust so that it can sustain normal functioning in the face of changes and disturbances. It is a property or characteristic of an organisation that has good safety procedures and practices which enable it to have greater resistance to incidents and accidents, as well as being able to cope better when they occur. The definition currently used is:

the intrinsic ability of a system to adjust its functioning prior to, during, or following changes and disturbances so that it can sustain required operations under both expected and unexpected conditions” (Hollnagel et al. 2011, p. xxxvi).

Why is it important?

Developing an organisation’s resilience is important in reducing risks and improving safety. Today’s work is often complex so it can be difficult to predict all accident scenarios or situations. Resilience is therefore geared towards being able to deal with unexpected situations in an efficient and effective manner. It shifts the focus towards something more achievable which is having an ability to function safely or in the best way possible, regardless of the specific conditions experienced by the organisation. Adopting resilience means that the organisation is better able to cope well with the unexpected and can prevent nasty surprises.

Where did it come from?

Disciplines such as ecology and biology first used the concept of resilience to describe things like plants and animals that recover from adversity. In safety, researchers used resilience to describe the properties of high reliability organisations (organisations which have less than their fair share of accidents, such as aircraft carriers). These organisations were able to cope with rapid changes in pressures and performance demands. Moreover, despite these rapid changes, they were nevertheless able to maintain a certain level of functioning to allow the organisation to continue operating, regardless of the conditions it faced. More recently, the concept of resilience engineering emerged from a conference sponsored in Sweden. Researchers at this conference considered resilience a good focus for safety management since it acknowledges that performance is often underspecified. What this means is that it is difficult or impossible to predict and write procedures for every contingency or safety event that occurs. Instead, the focus should be on ensuring that the organisation is able to deal and cope with these contingencies by developing capabilities in being able to respond, monitor, learn and anticipate future events and threats.

Learn more about the History of safety.

How can I use it in my operations?

An important first step to improve resilience in licence holders’ operations is to learn more about it. The Holistic safety guidelines and Sample questions outline key principles for resilience—see Characteristic 5. You can also consult useful references.

There are several important points about resilience that should be noted. First there is nothing particular mysterious about resilience. An organisation that is resilient simply applies good safety management practices in a thorough and consistent manner. Like safety culture, it is easier to improve resilience by addressing its individual components, rather dealing with it as a whole. As outlined in the Guidelines, the core building blocks are based around four key abilities: the ability to respond, monitor, learn and anticipate. Licence holders can build resilience by addressing these components. For example: how well does the organisation anticipate future events?; are there meeting including people from different departments or divisions who discuss safety trends and how processes of work has changed?; how well does the organisation learn from events?; do the lessons learned get incorporated into day-to-day procedures and practices? Asking these questions and those in the Sample Questions are a good way to interrogate your system and find out how resilient it is.