Advancing Backwards in Safety

imageI had a call from a mate this week, the board of his company have been mesmerised by a presentation of the latest advances in safety. So I asked to see a copy of this presentation expecting some astounding research and scintillating stuff taking safety into the future. So what did I see? Bradley curve, Heinrich’s pyramid, Reason’s Swiss cheese, a bow tie and lots of gobbledygook about zero. Really! Are boards this dumb?

Of course the claim to fame to this presentation was not based on research and practice but rather years of working in a tier one company that averages 8 fatalities a year. It’s like bragging about DuPont as if they have some impeccable safety track record. Astounding. Why is it that CEOs fall for this smoke and mirrors, silver bullet stuff? The emperor’s new clothes and no one interrogates, criticizes or contests? Of course, any criticism of safety is anti-safety. Any negativity is wrong. The greatest values in safety are compliance and controls. No matter how dumb the safety message, no matter how out of date apparently, all safety is good.

Of course, there is no better way to seduce a CEO or board than to promise a reduction in injury rates and incidents. Promise the impossible, even though injury rates have nothing to do with safety and bank those consultant dollars. How sad that this stuff is about, parading as safety when it has nothing to do with safety. The only guarantee that can be offered to this company is that nothing will improve or change except their bank balance. What this surge back to the future demonstrates is that the sector has little vision beyond more of the same.

Vision is about much more than just concocting some collection of motherhood statements on a page and calling it ‘vision’. Vision knows how to look forward not backward. Vision is able to innovate, create, imagine and see beyond the same olde STEM stuff, numerics and metrics, curves and pyramids. Vision knows that controls and compliance can’t generate insight and the skill of ‘seeing beyond’. Vision inspires, energizes and motivates people to search for something new, that offers hope.

A few weeks ago I was asked by a board to share what I knew about culture and of course could I do so in 50 minutes, jammed between other more ‘important’ things on their meeting agenda. I always struggle with these kinds of requests and am nearly at the stage where I will no longer do such presentations. It’s astounding how success in business or some area of accounting makes one an expert in culture and social psychology! It’s also amazing how such expertise in culture comes without reading anything and with any background in anthropology, sociology, cultural theory or practice.

Most of the times I present on culture to leaders and boards I wonder after 40 minutes why I am there. Indeed, last year I walked out of a board presentation stating, ‘I have no idea why you have asked me here, you are already experts on culture’!

It seems that interest in culture for boards is like some brief ad that interrupts a non-reality TV show but somehow has to be done. This session with the board I walk out on was no different. Here I am trying to educate a collection of accountants, engineers and a lawyer in 50 minutes about something one could study for 10 years and they already knew it all. This is despite the fact that a few in the room had to ask what semiotics and transdisciplinarity was. Ah, but they knew all about culture.

Yuri Lotman was the founder of A Semiotic Theory of Culture (Universe of the Mind 1990) and his work The Unpredictable Working of Culture ought to be foundational reading for safety people. Lotman was a Russian genius who founded the school of semiotics at the University of Tartu (Estonia). Lotman also developed an understanding of cultures as semiopheres (;

A semiotic understanding of culture opens up astounding insights into the nature of culture/s. Light years beyond the nonsense of Safety that defines culture as ‘what we do around here’. Similarly the AIHS BoK on Organisational Culture despite the capabilities of Borys, makes no mention of such an understanding of culture. When the discipline of safety is your prism through which you see the world, your world is indeed small. Here is Safety locking its understanding of culture into the paradigm of behaviorism and then wondering why things don’t improve. Just as the AIHS Bok on Ethics ( locked into deontology as if such a view is both objective and orthodox!

Transdisciplinarity is about vision by venturing across the disciplines, by entertaining doubt and investigating something completely new ( ). Transdisciplinarity requests that you suspend your agenda familiar with your discipline and listen to the conversation of another discipline. It asks that you listen to the language, metaphors and discourse of a completely different paradigm and do so with an attitude of learning. Unfortunately, we tend to close off learning by the dynamic of professionalization. Such is the dynamic of creating a body of knowledge and defining the limits of knowing.

So, after 50 minutes of the presentation I came to the conclusion that this board wanted to be entertained but didn’t want to learn. It simply wanted to confirm what it already knew (confirmation bias) and didn’t want to change despite the spin associated with their request for a presentation. And this is the attraction of going backwards in safety, retreating back to the comforts of what is known in swiss cheese and pyramids, even though none of these concepts and models have anything to do with safety.

Going backwards has nothing to do with time. The old theories of safety that have been established and normalized in the industry are not backwards because they were developed in the past but rather because they were modeled on a narrow view of humans, organizing and risk. Heinrich’s pyramid is not backward because it was developed years ago, it’s backward because its anthropology is reductionist and dehumanizing. Lotmann’s (1922-1993) theory of culture is not advanced because it is new in time but because it offers hope for community, relationships and society. It offers a new ethic of seeing the world that brings promise, insight and understand in why we do what we do.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

2 Replies to “Advancing Backwards in Safety”

  1. Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards – Aldous Huxley

    Chaos and ineptitude are anti-human; but so too is a superlatively efficient government, equipped with all the products of a highly developed technology – Aldous Huxley

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