Knowing stories that matter: Learning for effective safety decision-making

Jan Hayes*, Sarah Maslen

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    33 Citations (Scopus)


    Ongoing safe operation of hazardous industries such as hydrocarbon production and transportation, air traffic control and nuclear power generation depends on effective decision-making by those in key positions. Safety studies often focus on the extent to which actions of operational personnel in particular are dictated by procedures or rules and hence reinforce the need for compliance to ensure the best outcomes. This article directs attention to a different area-the judgements made by experts in the cases that are not covered by rules and, in particular, the key role of stories and storytelling. This ethnographic research draws on literature related to high-reliability theory, organisational learning and naturalistic decision-making to examine how experts working in diverse critical contexts use stories to share and make sense of their experiences. It argues that such stories are vital to effective decision-making as a result of both the general and specific lessons that they embody. Our analysis shows that experts use stories as parables to nurture their ability to imagine possible outcomes and maintain a safety imagination. Stories are also embedded in work practices to support decision-making in the moment. Finally, stories are strongly linked to organisational learning for experts as a group and in mentoring less-experienced colleagues. We argue that the increased focus on incident reporting systems in hazardous industries, which is driven at least in part by a consideration of organisational learning, is failing in this regard because such systems do not facilitate story-based learning. We appeal to organisations to support story-based learning with as much vigour as formal systems for professional development and reporting.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)714-726
    Number of pages13
    JournalJournal of Risk Research
    Issue number6
    Publication statusPublished - 3 Jul 2015


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