Embodiment, Risk and Safety

Embodiment, Risk and Safety

One of the greatest impediments to an envisioned understanding of risk and safety is how these industries define the human person and culture. The idea that the fallible human is divided between a body and a brain completely distorts all strategy in risk and safety.

The problem of consciousness and of knowing in risk can never be properly tackled as long as the human mind and life, brain and body, environment and inner self, are conceptualized in such a way that they exclude each other. As long as the risk and safety industries remain anchored to behaviourist/cognitivist paradigms all solutions and strategy will fail to respond holistically to humans as socially embodied persons.

The traditional response in the risk and safety industries to the problem of harm and injury has always been focused as a brain-environment problem. Whilst the industry has worked over history in shaping a safer environment, it still doesn’t understand how embodied fallible humans respond to that environment.

The focus on human judgment and decision making in risk and safety training has always found its locus in the brain and systems. Indeed, in the language of the industry ‘the brain’ and ‘mind’ are used interchangeably as if they are the same thing. And so, the language of risk and safety is primarily mechanistic focused on the brain as an interpreter of systems.

If one understands humans as embodied then consciousness doesn’t stop at the skin. Indeed, we all know how tools become part of ‘our’ hand, we can feel things through the tool. Similarly when we drive a car, we feel every bump on the road as if the car is a part of us and we are a part of it. As living bodies we extend into the world and the world affects us. Moreso, the discovery of ‘canonical neurons’ in the premotor cortex in the 1990s helps us understand our own agency in the world and how we ‘feel’ a part of it. Our environment ‘thinks’ and ‘feels’ just as much as we do.

The model of the brain as a computer ‘driving’ the body, is simply not supported by the evidence. The idea of ‘reprogramming’ the brain approach has little chance of making much difference to the practice of risk and safety.

The brain does not create the Mind. If humans are ‘embodied’ then the brain is not the organ of creation or instigation but rather a relational organ that ‘mediates’ our living in the world.  As Claxton (2015, Intelligence in the Flesh) notes: ‘the brain does not issue commands but rather hosts conversations’. Claxton (The Wyaward Mind) ought to be foundational reading for all risk and safety people.

What are the implications of human embodiment for risk and safety?

  1. Risk and safety must be viewed much more as a socially enacted process. Where all factors, not just process, human and technique are viewed as interconnected and ecological.
  2. The idea of complacency (The Wayward Mind) must not be viewed as just a brain problem. If the Mind is an integrated whole then everything should have significance in tackling risk.
  3. If humans are not conscious of many things but ‘repress’ aspects of themselves even to themselves, then social presence much be given much more importance in knowing oneself in context and in tackling risk.
  4. As social and ecological communicators then all symbols and language should be given much more significance in an industry that prides itself on speaking nonsense to people.
  5. Moreso, issues of Mind, psychological health and well-being must be viewed as a social challenge not just an individual challenge. This means then that resilience is not an individual problem but a social problem. We have to stop viewing it as ‘pulling oneself up by the bootlaces’ but resilience as the holistic and ecological challenge that it is.
  6. This means that disciplines that risk and safety reject must find a voice inside the mechanistic monster that has been closed by a history of STEM-only thinking. If risk and safety are to have any vision, it can only come from a transdisciplinary opening up to more imaginative possibilities beyond the confines of behaviorism, scientism and cognitvism. This means that such interests an anthropology, social psychology, education and learning, pastoral care, ethics and semiotics should be included in the curriculum. The current 80% focus in curriculum on regulation and legislation should be cut to 20%.
  7. An awareness of what is unconscious should therefore become of interest to the risk and safety industries. This includes the human and ‘collective unconscious’.
  8. The mechanistic and dehumanizing (https://safetyrisk.net/the-mechanistic-worldview-and-the-dehumanisation-of-risk/) trajectory of excessive systems and excessive objectifying must stop and a new vision for risk and safety should be countenanced as an ecological process.
  9. Training should therefore shift from a training room focus to an embodied process in situ, where implicit knowledge receives greater value and heuristics are taken seriously.
  10. If leadership is about vision then the current approach on meaningless data, language and symbology must be dropped and a new narrative created in how tackling risk and safety is practiced.

To take up any of these challenges would require a real sense of vision and change. We hear all this tokenistic talk about ‘disruption’ in risk and safety whilst at the same time building the fortress for ‘non-change’ and comfort in what we know. The industry asks the question ‘where to next?’ but doesn’t want to engage with little else outside the comforts of its own paradigm. And so, nothing will change.

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.

5 Replies to “Embodiment, Risk and Safety”

  1. This is reflected via the recent report following the review of the Model WHS legislation, which finds the model laws are operating as intended.

    Quite extraordinary given there are currently 92 confirmed cases of mine dust lung diseases in Queensland and almost 100 cases of silicosis with 15 terminally ill victims:



    Almost 800 workers are currently undergoing testing for silicosis at a cost of $1.5 million

    Not much too see here, lets move on – Zero harm indeed, a moment is all it takes.

  2. Make that 97 confirmed cases of mine dust lung diseases and given the primary object of the model Act is to secure the health and safety of people at work it can hardly be operating as intended.

  3. When you are bogged down in regulation and hold an inquiry, you will always seek a future in more regulation. That’s the Safety way. The best way to ensure that nothing changes and Real Risk is denied is to keep the the same worldview and hope that vision will arrive in the dreaming.

  4. That is a lot of words! Over-thinkin the concept. Risk is simply any thing that may affect or safety and property to any degree of concern. I mean anything external or internal to us.

  5. Unfortunately Kevin, neither risk nor safety are simple, nor black and white. Hardly overthinking the problem of consciousness at all indeed, perhaps you could describe what consciousness is and how the unconscious functions? Especially, how people make decisions in the face of uncertainty? Perhaps under automaticity? Even more, perhaps an explanation on what shame is or why people blush when embarrassed. All with huge implications for learning and tackling risk.

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