I’m Concerned That We Can’t See The Safety Forest For The Safety Trees

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Acknowledgement- This article draws heavily on the concepts of Dr Rob Long, and particularly his work on safety needing to take a transdisciplinary approach. A great article on this can be viewed here.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that within our industry there are a few different opinions about how best to tackle safety. We see this played out in academic circles, social media platforms, and conferences. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding this frustrating, but I also know that at times I’ve been just as much a part of it, and while I hope that I’ve been constructive in my debate, I also suspect that at times I’ve been destructive.

Sitting with this frustration, reflecting on where we are as an industry, on the noise we all create (including my role in that), and on how that must look to our customers, I think I’ve spotted a paradox. I think the source of a lot of conflict within our industry could also be the source of a solution, but we can’t a way forward because we are so caught up within the debate.

It’s a double edged sword, or catch 22, or paradox, or whatever, that debate is healthy, but only to the point where it allows ideas and progression. It’s necessary, but can also be the barrier, and at the moment, in safety, I’m concerned that we are not progressing as we should because I don’t think we can properly see our forest because of our trees.

So in this article I’m hoping to be able to present an idea that is more about a broad strategy or philosophy we could all agree on, rather than a solution to any specific safety issue. There is of course a high risk of irony here in that I’m entering the debate to put forward yet another idea. So while we all think about the possible contradictions of this, let’s also read on and see where we end up.

All About Worldviews

I’m going use the term worldviews to refer to distinct opinions and ideas that exist in safety. Not that every idea or concept in safety is a separate worldview, but I believe that if you reflect on what’s happened, and is happening, in our industry, you might see that there are some fundamental differences (or paradigms) in the way safety is approached.

By way of example, a dominant worldview at the moment is to approach safety as a science. That is, safety is viewed through a science and STEM lens, and therefore so are safety related problems and solutions. This isn’t a surprise given that most tertiary degrees in safety are taught from within a science faculty. Even the contemporary approaches of Safety II and Safety Differently are still are still looked at as a science, and in Qld the academic work in this area is based out of Griffith University’s Safety Science Innovation Lab.

Of course, that’s just a dominant worldview right now. Other worldviews have had prominence in the past, and are still popular today. These include behavioural safety (which is based in cognitive psychology and provides the structure of behaviour based safety), human factors (which is seated within an engineering/design philosophy, but has a focus on physical and cognitive ergonomics), process safety (heavy engineering bias about keeping stuff in pipes and tubes), zero harm (based within a harm prevention/ reduction philosophy but without any of the academic rigour or background of some other worldviews), and systems thinking (based in concepts of efficiency, and consistency, it seeks continuous improvement through being systematic and structured).

Some Assumptions About Worldviews

There are more safety worldviews out there, and in my next article I’m going to look a bit more about the pros and cons of different ones. For now I just want to stick with the broader concept of there being worldviews within safety, and ask you to try these three ideas on for size:

  1. There are a number of distinctly different worldviews and paradigms at play within safety;
  2. Each worldview has its own set of foundational beliefs, values, strategies and methods reflecting the philosophy it has come from; and
  3. A worldview influences how you see your world, including (in this case) how you see safety and it’s related concepts and challenges.

What do you think? Obvious? Too simplistic? A little reductionist? Overcomplicating the issue? Just move on?

Still With Me?

If you’re OK with the above, let’s crack on. If you disagree with the above the rest of the article may not be for you. I’m not saying that the points above aren’t open to debate, I’m just saying that in the interest of efficiency I don’t think they are too radical, I will address this more in my next article, and I need to move on.

Back To Worldviews

So what does it mean to call out a situation of having multiple safety worldviews? I mean, it’s not like I’ve actually invented a new idea here right? All I’ve done is described a situation that I think currently exists (and many of you probably also see).

Well, as I alluded to in the opening paragraphs, I think that there could be value in specifically focussing on this for our industry. That is, not a solution to a safety problem, but a possible strategy for our industry that can allow debate and ensure it’s positive. But to be able to use this concept, we need to give it a language. We need to be able to use it in a constructive way.

At the moment I suspect that a lot of debate in safety resembles the cartoon below, and not to oversimplify it, I’m suggesting that what is needed is a focus on where we are standing (and what that means), before we debate whether the right answer is 6 or 9 (which is what I think happens most of the time now).

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To take the analogy of this cartoon further, I’m suggesting that:

  • The different viewing directions in this cartoon represent different worldviews; and
  • That there are more than two worldviews (maybe up to 10); and
  • The fact that different worldviews have developed over time and still persist today, demonstrates that there is no one correct or dominant worldview and so they all potentially have some legitimacy; and
  • Debate should first focus on which worldview is best suited to a particular problem, rather than which solution is best.
Wait! Aren’t You Just Proposing Another Worldview?

Yes, and as mentioned in the introduction I am aware of the potential irony. But, if you think of this more as a meta-worldview (a worldview about worldviews), it maybe isn’t quite the same as saying this particular safety worldview is correct, and maybe that will make it more acceptable and less ironic.

Of course, if you’re really committed to your own worldview and think that it has all the solutions for every safety problem, then it will definitely sound like I’m just spruiking yet another (wrong) worldview.

I’m genuinely not trying to convince you that your worldview is wrong and doesn’t work (because apart from anything else I have learnt that I won’t change your beliefs through a article). Instead, I’m inviting you to think about this an additional worldview that doesn’t conflict with anything out there. It’s an “as well as”, not an “either/or” conversation.

Of course, it does require some concessions. It requires some people to be OK with the idea that their particular worldview may not have all the solutions. The trade-off is that you also get to say that your worldview may be best suited to a particular challenge.

Back to the Paradox

So now it’s time to come back to my thought that the source of our problem may also be the source of our way forward-

If we could agree that there are multiple worldviews that are neither always right or always wrong, but instead are sometimes right and sometimes wrong, then we would actually have a single worldview we could all agree on, which would still tolerate different worldviews.

What do you think? Bit reductionist? Too simplistic? Too obvious? Yet another worldview (how ironic)? Who cares? Need to read that a few more times?

Imagine A World?

Imagine a world where everyone in safety agreed that there was no one single approach or worldview that was always right or always wrong? Where would that push the conversation to? What would change about the way we debate ideas in safety? How would it change the way you work with customers (internal or external)?

Imagine a world where the dialogue in our industry first centred on which worldview was best suited to tackle an issue, not on what the best solution or fix was? I mean, people might talk about having a safety toolkit now. About having a range or strategies and idea to draw on, but I still suspect they come from the same worldview (that was my experience anyway), because that’s the way worldviews work.

I feel that the multiple worldview approach would actually represent the full expression of the toolkit idea, it’s just that once you worked out what tool was best, you might then have to be OK with saying that you’re not the right person to apply it.

A Starting Point

As I mentioned in my introduction, I offer no safety solutions in this article, only an opportunity to reflect on where we are and how we operate as an industry, and maybe suggest a way we could show a united front to other industries and our customers. I’m also not saying that I think everyone is always like this. But I would suggest that we can probably all be like this at times (again I include myself in this).

I think this conversation could change the way we tackle safety as a whole industry because it should force us to consider our worldviews first (including their strengths and weaknesses), which should mean we get better at choosing the right tool (and then staying in our lane). It would make us get better at clarifying the nature of problems first which has to result in better outcomes for our customers?

What It Looks Like For Me

One of the ways I try and put this into practice is by talking about my worldview (or philosophy) with clients, particularly when doing workshops or presentations because of the short timeframes involved. It might sound something like-

“Before we get into this, I just want to let you know where I’m coming from. First, I think the world is a better place when people are more connected to each other, and I look at the world through a social psychological lens. This means I look at how people are influenced by the people and world around them, and I tend to see challenges and problems through this lens. It also means I typically look for solutions and strategies that tackle culture and engagement from a social psychology paradigm. This isn’t to say that other solutions may not be appropriate, it’s just not what I do”.

The conversation from there goes where it goes, but this sets the scene for the audience to be able to reflect on what I’m saying. It sets the scene for why I am not the right person to talk to if you wanted to get legal advice, or develop a technical document, or measure air quality. But it’s why I think I am the right person to talk about culture.

You can ask me to do an systems audit, and I could give it a go, but I’ll just want to talk to people all day, rather than looking at things and stuff. My report will also be filled with descriptions of shared assumptions and beliefs and how that might be influencing thinking and behaviour, and will probably also be full of comments on trust and language. It won’t help you at all with knowing whether you are being compliant (not that that isn’t important, it’s just that to me it isn’t the same as being safe).

What It Looks like For Clients

Often the first bit of work I do with new clients who want to work on culture or engagement (if they wanted to work on systems I wouldn’t be there of course because it’s not what my worldview is suited to), is to start with a conversation about what they mean by safety. This forces a conversation about what safety means to the leaders, which starts to clarify the safety worldview within the organisation.

The reason I start here is the same argument I’m putting forward in this article. If we focus first on understanding the worldview, we can then be more confident that we are applying the most suited strategies and ideas. Which has to be best for the client right?

An example of this recently was where it became clear (within the first 5 minutes of conversation) that a client saw their primary safety issues related to safety behaviour through Behaviour Based Safety worldview. That is, they saw the primary source of their problems as being within the people of the organisations and how they were behaving. I tested the water around cultural stuff and got nothing. They felt pretty comfortable with how they saw the issue, and so I knew my ideas and strategies were not going to suit them.

By the way, I think the worldview of cognitive psychology is not suited to tackling organisational culture and behaviour (it is very well suited to individual behaviour of course, which is where it developed), but that’s not the point here. The point is that the client’s worldview was not suited to the strategies and ideas that come from a social psychological worldview, and so I am not the right one for that work.

Your Worldview

You have a safety worldview, even if you have never really thought about it. You have an inbuilt framing that you bring to bear in your work, and I’m not saying it’s wrong, I’m just asking you to consider that it may not always be right.

Dave Whitefield

Culture and Engagement Specialist in Safety and Risk

People and Risk

Acknowledgement- This article draws heavily on the concepts of Dr Rob Long, and particularly his work on safety needing to take a transdisciplinary approach. A great article on this can be viewed here.

Dave Whitefield
After 20 years in safety and training, I now focus primarily on the human side of safety. I help clients tackle their wicked problems through seeking to understand how people organise in response to uncertainty, and how they make sense of risk. I do this through consulting, coaching, training and workshop design and delivery, MC'ing events and conferences, and delivery of keynote presentations.

7 Replies to “I’m Concerned That We Can’t See The Safety Forest For The Safety Trees”

  1. From my perspective, the description of some of the “world views” is not quite right.
    Behavioral safety is based on behavioral psychology, which considers that the psychology of a person or an animal can be objectively studied through observing their actions, and that behaviors can be shaped by conditioning. Operant conditioning shapes behavior by the consequences (positive or negative reinforcement, and punishment) and classical conditioning links unrelated stimuli with to evoke involuntary responses. (Founders are John B Watson, B.F. Skinner, I. Pavlov). Behavioral psychology does not consider the internal workings of the mind and it considers only external influences on behavior which is a partial and simplified view of a person or animal.
    By contrast, cognitive psychology is about mental processing such as memory, attention, problem-solving, decision-making, use of language, creativity and thinking. It is concerned with the mental processing that occurs between a stimulus and an output /response. As such, it views the mind as a complex system in itself, which interacts with external stimuli, and it views cognition as being involved with all human activities. (Founders are U. Neisser, C. Cherry, N. Moray, D. Broadbent, G. Miller, N. Chomsky, A. Baddeley) It enables a richer, fuller and more complex view of the people, their inherent strengths and limitations, and what can influence them than does behavioural psychology.
    Human Factors / Ergonomics is a science and a technology. Although it focuses on humans, its considerations are much wider. To understand and design successful and safe work systems (comprising humans, equipment, the social and organizational context and the wider environment), Human Factors / Ergonomics needs to take a holistic view of the broad context in which people work, to understand the influences and interfaces which surround the human working with equipment. For example, approaches include considerations of person, technology, workspace, environment; socio-technical systems; Humans/Technology/Organization, and Human Systems Integration, which first integrates a defined range of human-related considerations and separately integrates this composite view with the engineering considerations. To be effective, Human Factors / Ergonomics necessarily includes and combines a number of “world views”, using the most appropriate frameworks and approaches, as needed.

  2. Dave, a very sense-able piece. Worldviews also hold traditions and in my tradition criticism and debate are understood as ‘deconstruction’ not destruction. Unfortunately many personalise their identity with safety and neither see it as an archetype or industry. The best way to bring the worldviews together is through compromise, acknowledgement and dialogue but unfortunately this cannot happen as long as most of the industry holds to the absolute of zero that is held as an ideology of no-compromise. Transdisciplinarity is the key to moving forward and also the best way to tackle wicked problems and I’m more convinced than ever that the wickedity of safety is a critical part of what you have described.

  3. Dave, Thank you for a thought-provoking article that is also easy to read. I love how you say, in the part about interaction with clients, how a certain approach is “not you”, rather than saying it is “wrong” or “inappropriate”, thereby opening the door for another worldview or approach to be introduced, just not by you. I find that I sometimes have different worldviews on different days, and this is most likely influenced by the situation that triggered the internal discussion.

  4. I liked your article. I can think of the last 20 years of safety conferences, and all those success stories. They can’t all be wrong, so the key is taking the approach that pushes the organization’s hot buttons. Safety support internal to an organization may get bound by the worldview of that organization, you go with the flow of what works, what is supported by your superiors, what eases your daily work life. Occupational Health and Safety started with the call to improve conditions, and I will always have that worldview. I became an ergonomist to design workplaces for people but rarely is there a holistic approach. For example, workstation heights and reaches are considered but not temperature and lighting control. But safety is lopsided towards management science, auditing, and compliance. These efforts employ most of the safety work and make up most of the safety job descriptions I see posted. Senior safety people turn to MBAs to advance their career, and so despite the need for compliance, I think it is an profession that attracts people with a managerial worldview.

    1. Suzanne, I agree that managerialism dominates the safety industry but I think this is much more connect to STEM and masculinst definitions of power, authority and learning. The safety industry is profoundly masculinist, even women in safety so easily conform to the STEM empiricist binary ways of knowledge and relating and don’t know it. As an ergonomist you would know all of the matters of personhood that are excluded from orthodox ergonomics and made of no relevance because ergonomics is about objectivising humans. There is no sense of holistic ergonomics in the industry globally, when you discourse is zero then hazard and object counting is the outcome. Interestingly there is also no feminist view of safety globally either. It would take a transdisciplinary approach to validate feminist knowledge in the sector and that won’t be happening soon: https://safetyrisk.net/can-there-be-a-feminist-safety/

  5. It is such a pity our peak safety body and its Pecksniffian acolytes cannot embrace the thesis, antithesis and synthesis hendiatris.

    Any skerrick of critical analysis regarding the inordinate scientism, positivism, objectivism and structuralism of its body of knowledge or the asinine shibboleth of zero harm is typically demonised and correspondents are invariably excommunicated from the fold.

    This obedience to the orthodoxy extirpates learning and destroys organisational development and a quote from Harold Laski resonates:………….A healthy loyalty is not passive and complacent but active and critical

  6. It is somewhat ominous but ministerial responsibility for work health and safety was recently allocated to Frank Spencer, the Commonwealth attorney general and federal minister for industrial relations:

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