Security vs. Safety

Hi, my name is Bob Dwyer, GMA’s Global Safety and Security Manager. Welcome to the first session of the security management course. We’ve been working hard on this course for a couple of months so we hope you’re going to really like it. I’m very excited about the possibilities of reaching new staff with this new approach to training. First up, we’re going to start off with some basics to make sure we are all on the same page. So, you have responsibilities for security management in your job description? What does this mean? What is security? Does a terrorist bomb count as a security incident? What about a fire in the office or a serious road traffic collision? What exactly does ‘security’ mean?

At GMA we work in 17 different countries around the world, and it may depend which language you speak in your country programme. In English there is a differentiation between safety and security, but in other languages there is just the one word to cover both ideas. But let’s stick to English for the moment, and I can tell you that even many English speakers might struggle to tell you the difference between safety and security. I looked up the two terms in an online dictionary and the definition for safety is ‘preventing or not causing injury, danger or loss’. The definition for security is ‘freedom from danger, risk, anxiety’. Now I’m not sure precisely what the difference is between those two, they sound pretty similar to me. So we’re fortunate that in GMA we have a clearer difference between the two ideas. But before I tell you what the difference is perhaps you can work it out for yourselves. People often struggle to define the difference between safety and security, yet they know the difference when they hear it. So, let me give you a few scenarios; think about whether you would describe these as safety or security issues: in one of our projects, someone slips on a wet floor – safety or security? That’s a safety issue. There’s an accidental fire in a field office – safety or security? that’s also a safety issue; One of our drivers is caught in the middle of cross-fire or an armed gunfight? – safety or security? That’s a security issue; An expat staff member is robbed at knife-point in the street – safety or security? That’s also security; A cleaner electrocutes themselves on a light switch – safety or security? That’s safety. A tropical storm floods the country office – safety or security? That’s safety. A project manager is involved in a road traffic accident – safety or security? That’s safety. The project manager hits a young girl during a road traffic accident and her father comes out of the house with a baseball bat and starts attacking the project manager’s vehicle – safety or security? That’s security. Can you see if there’s a pattern that links those different events, that might tell you whether an event is a safety or a security event? I think you’ve got it – in each of the safety events there is no desire to cause harm – slipping on a wet floor, an accidental fire in the office, electrocution or a road traffic accident are not examples of where one human wants to cause harm to another human. However, cross-fire or an armed gunfight, street robbery, or a furious father with a baseball bat are all security issues because one human is intentionally trying to cause harm to another. And you can see that there might be a connection between safety and security issues – so strong winds (a safety issue) that damage the perimeter wall of a field office can lead to future security issues such as burglary of the office, which is now less well protected.

Let me give you the definitions used by GMA. We define safety as ‘freedom from risk or harm as a result of unintentional acts (accidents, natural phenomenon or illness).’ And we define security as ‘freedom from risk or harm resulting from violence or other intentional acts.

However, whilst it’s important to understand the difference between safety and security, what we are really interested in is the risks that GMA staff face during their work. And these could be either safety or security risks. Traditionally our job descriptions have tended to focus on security management, and we are right now in discussions with the People Department to change this because statistically, the biggest threat to our staff is road traffic accidents followed closely by disease, whether water-borne, mosquito-borne or air-borne like COVID, and these of course are safety risks. So If we have responsibility for security written in our job description and we concentrate only on security risks we may be ignoring the main risks to GMA staff and as a result we probably aren’t doing our jobs well. If, for example, we concentrate only on the low risk of car-jacking, yet we ignore the much higher risk of malaria because we do ‘security’ we are leaving GMA staff and programmes open to a very significant risk. So it’s important to know the difference between safety and security, but to do our jobs well we need to consider both and consider where the main risks lie. For sure, it is always a good idea to look at road traffic safety in a given country, because this is usually one of the highest risks – and that of course, is a safety risk. So, where it says ‘security’ in your job description, read that to mean security AND safety.

Just finally when thinking about the difference between safety and security, let’s go back to the dictionary definitions. The definition if found for ‘security’ is freedom from danger, risk and anxiety. I think this throws up two interesting points. The first is that it’s impossible in our work to be 100% free from risk. At GMA, the organisation and our staff choose to work in some very challenging locations because that’s where the greatest need is. It’s not possible for us to offer a 100% guarantee of security. However, what we are working towards through trainings like this one and other approaches are sensible ways to reduce our risk, not to be 100% free of it. And the second point is that the dictionary definition talks about freedom from ‘anxiety’, which refers to the psychological impact of working in areas of insecurity, and the impact it can have on mental wellness. We will be looking at this later in the course, but it’s worth saying here that working in insecure environments involves risks that are both physical and psychological, and both can be severe. We as an organisation continue to learn how to both recognise this and to put in place measures to mitigate it, including access to psychological support where requested.

So in this brief audio you have learnt the difference between the terms safety and security as used by GMA. Safety is non-intentional, whereas Security is intentional violence committed by one human against another. We’ve also learnt that whilst the distinction between the two is important it’s also important not to neglect safety issues because these can bring the highest risks to GMA’s staff and programmes in many locations. And we’ve seen that it’s not possible to be 100% free of risk yet we strive to get as close as possible to that, taking into account both physical and psychological impacts.

Now let’s see how much you have taken in during this session by moving on to the knowledge check that follows.