Isn’t it Time We Reformed the WHS Curriculum?

Isn’t it Time We Reformed the WHS Curriculum?

Dr Robert Long – Executive Director – Centre for Leadership and Learning in Risk

Executive Summary

Graduate - Confused by Career ChoicesThis paper argues the case for reformation of the WHS curriculum in Australia. It proposes that safety cannot be done ‘differently’ without such a reformation. The paper describes the nature of the overt curricula but more importantly the ‘hidden curriculum’ as it creates and merges with the mechanistic/reductionist worldview that dominates the safety sector.

The paper argues that after 30 years of evolution in safety in Australia that the industry is confused, fragmented, constrained and indeed, understood as an embuggerance by the general population. The dissatisfaction with the ‘condition’ of safety is demonstrated by the work of the ‘safety differently’ movement. The paper poses a set of questions that asks why this ‘condition’ has developed in such a way. The discussion then explores what part the overt and hidden curriculum has played a part in this evolution.

The overt curriculum is examined in a general way looking at proportionality and the distribution of ideas and disciplinary focus. Several myths are explored in the safety industry to substantiate the nature of the problem (the ‘condition’) and how the WHS curriculum creates and sustains the current malaise.

The paper concludes by raising the need for a transdisciplinary approach to tackling safety and the need for greater diversity and bridge-building across disciplines. In this way it is suggested that the complexities and wickedity of safety may be properly tackled and safety might move forward to a future of greater maturity.


How mature has the risk and safety industry become in Australia since Occupational Health and Safety was first legislated in the 1980s? In approximately 30 years what has evolved to be the nature of Work, Health and Safety (WHS) culture? How is a career in risk and safety identified in 2016?

Since 2013 a movement has started from within the safety sector that has a vision for safety to be done ‘differently’ ( The ‘safety differently’ movement is a clear declaration that people within the sector no longer identify with what safety has become nor how it is being practiced.

It simply doesn’t make sense to call for safety to be done ‘differently’ ( or for ‘safety II’ ( without also calling for reform in the WHS (Work, Health and Safety) curriculum. One can despair as much as one likes about the state of Safety indeed, one can declare it ‘broken’ ( or bankrupt but without reform of the WHS curriculum we will continue to train people in nonsensical myths that frame the way they approach the work of safety[1].

If the very formation of those who come into the industry is not a formation with a more sophisticated sense of the risk and safety, it will always be ‘catch up’ and ‘unlearning’ their curriculum legacy when they get out into the workplace. Until safety is done differently perhaps we could call the current safety education system one of ‘compulsory mis-education’. Without some vision for reform of the WHS curriculum, the vision for ‘safety differently’ can only ever remain dim. Where is the promise and hope for safety differently if a framework for action in risk and safety omits such a vision? ( It is my contention that the current archetype of Safety is restricted in vision, anti-learning, uncreative and lacking innovation.

One thing is for sure, naming something (safety) as a ‘professional’ doesn’t make it so and, at this stage one simply cannot compare other curricula for the education of professions with the curriculum for WHS.

The purpose of this paper is to challenge the current state of WHS formation/curriculum, the safety myths it sustains and to map some of the challenges facing the safety industry.

It ought to be noted that a critique of Safety is not being ‘anti-safety’ rather that if Safety was robust, resilient and learning-focused such a critique should be understood as being pro-safety. Any denial of critique does nothing more than make Safety more fragile and dumb, a vicious cycle. Similarly it ought to be noted that a critique of the archetype of Safety is in no way an attack on people-in-safety but rather a health-seeking and education-seeking critique for the industry[2]. Unfortunately, such an interpretation of critique emerges from a psychology of compliance and conformity associated with a checklist-focused industry and culture. Such a disposition is in opposition to the fundamental principles of continual improvement and learning.

What is Curriculum?

Before venturing too deep into the nature and design of curriculum it might suffice to discuss some general ideas and principles.

Bertrand and Dora Russell described the nature of education as follows (cited in Kilpatrick 1934, p. 393):

What is considered in education is hardly ever the boy or the girl, the young man or the young woman, but almost always in some form, the maintenance of the existing order. When the individual is considered, it is almost exclusively with a view to worldly success – making money or achieving a good position. To be ordinary and to acquire the art of getting on, is the ideal which is set before the youthful mind, except by the few rare teachers who have enough energy of belief to break through the system within which they are expected to work. Almost all education has a political motive: it aims at strengthening some group, national or religious, or even social, in the competitions with other groups. It is this motive in the main which determines the subjects taught, the knowledge offered, and the knowledge withheld, and also decides what mental habits the pupils are expected to acquire.

What Russell defined in 1934 we now know as ‘cultural reproduction’ (Apple, p.12), that is, the process and content that serve to legitimate ‘both the institutions that recreate it and our own actions within them’.

In many ways a curriculum is a teleological schema, it plots the future of the industry and foretells its trajectory (telos). One thing is sure, a curriculum is not a neutral map, nor without an embedded ethic nor devoid of methodology (ideology). Feyerabend (1975, p. 25) captures the problem nicely:

Just as a well-trained pet will obey his master no matter how great the confusion in which he finds himself, and no matter how urgent the need to adopt new patterns of behavior, so in the very same way a well-trained rationalist will obey the mental image of his master, he will conform to the standards of argumentation he has learned, he will adhere to these standards no matter how great the confusion in which he finds himself, and he will be quite incapable of realizing that what he regards as the ‘voice of reason’ is but a causal after-effect of the training he has received. He will be quite unable to discover that the appeal to reason to which he succumbs so readily is nothing but a political manoeuvre.

What Feyerabend describes suits the profile of the safety sector so aptly. Here is an industry after 30 years[3], preoccupied with injury statistics, thus defining itself as the absence of harm, therefore normalising the binary logic of zero, focused on the potential of objects to cause harm and validating the action of risk aversion as sensible. Having created a climate of conformism (to regulation), resulting in a psychic uniformity and compliance mentalitie[4], parts of the industry now look for diversity and reform in the name of ‘safety differently’. A further comment from Feyerabend is instructive:

This, I think is the most decisive argument against any method that encourages uniformity, be it empirical or not. Any such method is, in the last resort, a method of deception. It enforces an unenlightened conformism, and speaks of truth; it leads to a deterioration of intellectual capabilities, of the power of imagination, and speaks of deep insight; it destroys the most precious gift of the young – their tremendous power of imagination, and speaks of education.

The maintenance and reproduction of current WHS culture is sustained by the political economy of educational symbols (semiotics) enshrined in the WHS curriculum[5]. Whilst the overt curriculum is important it is not nearly as influential as the ‘Hidden Curriculum’ (Smith, Trautman, and Schlvan, 2004). The ‘Hidden Curriculum’ includes all of the unrecognized and sometimes unintended knowledge, values, by-products, trade-offs and beliefs that are part of the learning process that are not overt. The ‘Hidden Curriculum’ is most often ‘caught’ through the structure of the curriculum as much as in the organizing of it. This means that the way the curriculum is taught has a profound effect on learning, just as much as the content of what is taught. For example, Frieire (1972, p.45) described the idea of training education as ‘banking’, the making of deposits of information and withdrawals. The problem for Frieire was not just the content of the curriculum but the by-product of how it was structured and taught. When people are viewed as little more than receptacles for data, there is not much real learning. A parrot can regurgitate data.

Curriculum is about the structure of experiences proposed to transfer or excite student/people’s knowledge. The etymology of the word ‘curriculum’ means ‘a race’ or ‘course’ and has come to be known as ‘a course of study’. A curriculum is usually understood as a sequence of planned instruction or events. This is the overt curriculum. When educators talk about ‘extra-curricular’ activities, they often mean things that emerge from the ‘hidden curriculum’, rather learnings and activities that are planned. Often extra-curricular learning is understood as ‘incidental learning’ rather than ‘accidental’ learning. If one creates a learning environment or community, the community or environment itself provides much human learning that is not ‘planned’.

The key to understanding the planning of curriculum is to understand sequence, ‘scaffolding’ and ‘chunking’. It is rare that people learn much content in a short period of time, learning tends to be more cumulative, experiential and ‘builds’ according to ‘readiness’ to learn (founded in trust) and relationship between learning and teacher/teaching.

Whilst it is important to know how to structure and plan learning experiences, it is more important to know the ‘why’ of curriculum (methodology/philosophy) and the ‘how’ of curriculum (pedagogy) than the ‘what’ of curriculum (content).

Most often it is cultural reproduction, the hidden curriculum and incidental learning that are more powerful than the overt planned curriculum. The by-products and trade-offs in curriculum construction are critical in understanding the effectiveness of curriculum on learning. It is time Safety had a good look at itself (through curriculum) and what it has created (through the hidden curriculum) and ask if it wants another 30 years of the same.

The Identity of Work, Health and Safety

The identity of Safety and the safety industry, after 30 years of evolution is now known for the policing of regulation, filling out checklists and petty reporting. It is not known for creative, innovative critical thinking or a capability to engage with people in managing risk. This is evidenced by the constant feedback I get in the field, most safety people tell me they spend a high percentage of their time in front of computers, regulating paperwork and policing hazards/PPE on site. The general perception from the public is that WHS is an embuggerance[6] (also substantiated by MiProfile[7] data over 10 years). What is more, Safety is now used by all and sundry to invoke compliance and politicization of almost anything, thereby diminishing the credibility and validity of safety.

The safety industry is also known for its immaturity in thinking and lack of critical thinking. This is best exemplified by the immature logic of binary oppositionalism. Binary thinking is immature thinking that deliberates in either-or fundamentalist ways. This is exemplified in the fixation in numerical absolutes in safety with the ideology of zero and counting, stimulated by entrapment questioning like: ‘How many people do you want to kill today?’ or ‘How many accidents are acceptable for you?’ or ‘What is an acceptable number?’ (see the TAC Victoria Road Safety Campaign Toward Zero[8]. Postman (1976, pp. 143) calls such questioning Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk. Questions seeking a zero and numeric answer assume that a numeric defines the presence of something else (eg. safety). Binary thinking is not interested in complexity or open conversations about risk, nor the challenges of by-products and trade-offs in tackling risk. A simple yes and no will do.

Much of life is not either-or but many shades of grey or unknown. As Postman (p. 149) states: ‘As with either-or questions, the form of these questions limits our search for answers and therefore impoverishes our perceptions’. Once one is fixated on zero then ‘all accidents must be preventable’ and all sense of complexity, learning, paradox and uncertainty is suspended. Binary thinking lacks sophistication and is a denial of humanity and learning[9].

The problem is that binary thinking has become enculturated in the risk and safety industries supported by a bureaucratic, engineering and regulatory focus, culturally transferred (and normalized) over the past 30 years. Hence the challenges and critique of the ‘Safety Differently’ movement.

The Safety Differently movement calls for Safety to be innovative and creative ( accessed 28 June 2016), essentials for critical thinking and learning. Safety Differently declares that Safety has become identified by three negative principles[10]:

  • People are the problem
  • Safety is the absence of negatives
  • Safety is a bureaucratic activity

And proposes three positive principles:

  • People are the solution
  • Safety is the presence of positives
  • Safety is an ethical responsibility.

So, we observe in the agenda of this movement a rejection of what Safety has become in its short history. Coupled with this identity must be the curriculum and ‘hidden curriculum’ that has shared in its formation and maintenance.

For the purposes of this paper a few questions will help expand and describe the problem beyond what these three principles declare.

Key Questions

As we look at the challenges set forth by ‘Safety Differently’ movement, there are many more questions than answers. Perhaps it might be worth listing ten such questions:

  1. Why has Safety become associated with engineering and ‘hard science’[11] when it is fundamentally a helping, social and people-focused activity? (eg. saving lives)
  2. Why is the WHS curriculum not more connected to caring, communications and education faculties than a Science/Health faculty?
  3. Why has safety become obsessed with objects (hazards) rather than subjects (risk)?
  4. Why does the WHS curriculum continue to sustain the myth that numerics is a measure of safety?
  5. Why is so much space in the curriculum dedicated to understanding legislation and regulation when safety advisors are not a legal profession and are not a PCBU (Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking) under the WHS Act?
  6. Why is so little space dedicated to the skill of communication (approximately 10% of the curriculum) when the risk management standard and WHS Act expects 35% of safety to be about communication and consultation?

  7. Why are matrices, curves, swiss cheese, Heinrich’s Pyramid and reductionist models of risk still in the curriculum?

  8. Why is safety dominated by so much instrumentalist and reductionist philosophy in denial of human fallibility and ‘wicked problems’[12]?

  9. Similarly, why is critical thinking in such short supply and binary simplistic thinking in over abundance?

  10. Why is there such an absence of learning and education in the WHS curriculum when so much of safety should be about teaching and learning?

How did Safety get into this predicament? How has a mechanized and technicist paradigm become normalized as the culture and identity of safety?

There are several layers that need to be explored regarding the current status of curriculum in WHS, the overt (stated) curriculum, the implicit (embedded) and the covert (hidden) curriculum. An exploration of these layers will assist to draw out the identity of Safety and raise some challenges facing the industry. Before undertaking this discussion perhaps an overview of some common myths perpetuated in the industry will also help highlight the significance of the curriculum challenge.

The WHS Curriculum

The WHS curriculum is the bedrock that defines the nature of the safety industry in Australia, it is through this gateway (coupled with experience) that people come into the industry. The methodology[13] that drives the WHS curriculum is best exemplified in the WHS Diploma and Degree (see Appendices Two, Three and Four). Whilst degree programs are plentiful, it is the WHS Diploma that remains the quick gateway to a WHS career or, the quickest qualification attained (via RPL) for the least cost.

The first thing we notice in Appendices Two, Three and Four is an emphasis on systems, regulation, law and the mechanics of management. Even when one drills down into such content as ‘Manage effective WHS consultation and participation processes’ (BSBWHS403A) it is framed in the context of consulting about systems, law and regulation. Many of the basics in communication skills and effective communications are missing from the curriculum. Whilst the curriculum ‘tells’ what and why consultation is, there is no focus on the skill development required to practice it. For example, there is no discussion on listening, open questions, engagement and dialogue[14]. The emphasis is on consultation policy and procedures focusing on:

· Electing HSRs

· Setting up safety committees and,

· Issuing resolution procedures.

In contributing to the consultation process the focus is on ‘WHS rules’, WHS knowledge, monitoring and reporting. In contrast the Handbook (HB327) to the Risk Management Standard (AS/NZS ISO 31000:2011) tackles the challenges of communication and consultation in a far more sophisticated and mature manner. Unfortunately, in most contexts when I raise the existence of this handbook, very few in safety have heard of it nor read it.

Further, when one explores a standard WHS textbook one is confronted by the first 200 pages (of a total 337 pages) of text, consumed with compliance with WHS legislation, WHS Management Systems and Hazard Management[15]. The silence on human decision making and judgments in the curriculum is astounding. There is simply no mention of it in the overt curriculum. Even when humans and communications are mentioned in the curriculum they are understood as ‘factors’ in a system not the focus of the whole.

In undergraduate curriculum we observe a dominance of technical subjects and mechanistic subjects. Similarly, in post-graduate curriculum the emphasis is on management, systems and law. This is the overt curriculum, the next question is: what is being absorbed and created by the hidden curriculum? This is not just through information but also by ‘exformation’ (Norretranders, 1991, 92-98). If safety is understood as a generalist occupation, why is so much generalist education excluded from WHS education and curriculum? If the safety occupation is not liable under the WHS Act (as a Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking is), why is there so much emphasis on law and regulation rather than consultation skills (with the law)?

When we observe the overt curriculum there is much by way of generalist education that is missing. For example, subjects such as sociology, ethics, communication skills, critical thinking skills, human decision making, pastoral care, perception, social politics, motivation are missing. Added to this could be a new language of safety as a ‘helping’ occupation.

However, to just look at the weighting and focus of overt curriculum does not tell the real story. Rather, it is in the hidden curriculum where the real power of worldview is apparent. After all, the challenge of the curriculum is not so much a problem of content but a problem of paradigms[16]. Kuhn demonstrated that a paradigm defines (1962, p. 11ff):

  • what is to be observed and scrutinized
  • the kind of questions that are supposed to be asked and probed for answers in relation to this subject
  • how these questions are to be structured
  • what predictions made by the primary theory within the discipline
  • how the results of investigations should be interpreted

So this paper in its critique of the WHS curriculum is not just calling for a change in WHS curriculum content but is in unison with the call for a ‘paradigm shift’ with Safety Differently. The WHS curriculum problem is an ontological[17] problem, a problem of being and orientation. This aligns with what Dekker and Nyce (2013) call a problem of ‘ontological alchemy’:

This is what we mean by ontological alchemy: As if by alchemy, mental events or figments of an event—empirically accessed through individual acts of introspection or retrospection—become transmuted into both numbers and placeholders in a numbered set. The result is an invention, a creation, a fabrication, indeed a construct-like workload. Alchemy, a forerunner of chemistry, was concerned with the transformation of matter: turning the worthless into the useful and the valuable. Ontological alchemy is the transformation of a judgment about a mental experience into a number: turning it into something useful (and valuable) too. Once workload has become a figure, our analytic machinery stops. It has done its job. We do not need to concern ourselves further with whatever high order claims, like those about epistemology or ontology, our informants, our subjects, our participants, might want to put before us. Whatever ‘‘reality testing’’ is necessary has already occurred. It has been taken care of by the measurement, the tool, the index.

There can be no change unless there is methodological and ontological change. Unless there is a change in the collective unconscious (Jung), a change in method will simply be a change in content, not a change in worldview. This is what it means to do Safety Differently (Dekker, 2015).

Now moving to discuss the hidden curriculum do we see the real power of formation in the by-products of the WHS curriculum.

Myths Maintained by the ‘Hidden Curriculum’

After 30 years Safety is now sustained by a curriculum immersed in technicist and calculative thinking, mechanics, engineering and regulation rather than a focus on people, communication and helping.

So let’s transition to discuss how the current state of safety perpetuates a range of myths sustained by the current state of the WHS curriculum. Whilst there are many myths (as discussed in a number of my books) the following discussion will talk about three examples (aligned to the Safety Differently principles), highlighting the nature of the problem.

The first myth that pervades the industry is that safety is a ‘hard science’. Explore where safety is situated in universities and colleges and ask why, when the first thing a safety person needs on site are skills in engagement, understanding people, communication and consultation, social politics, understanding perception and motivation. Yet the primary focus of hard science and engineering is on ‘objects’ not ‘subjects’. To exemplify this problem lets look at how safety people are trained to conduct investigations.

Most models of investigation on the market are imbued with reductionist philosophy (Dekker, 2015). There is no debate about ‘emergence’ in the curriculum (neither in the SIA BoK) and the assumption is that everything has a cause. There is no common discussion about ‘wicked problems’ in the WHS curriculum (nor in the SIA BoK) or The Social Psychology of Risk[18] (not in the SIA BoK), nor a questioning of the nature of investigative assumptions of objectivity[19]. Rather, there is an assumption in investigation training and the WHS curriculum that subjectivity is a problem and that humans can remain at arms length from the investigative process. We also observe in WHS texts that causality is linear and hierarchical (further see appendices six, seven, eight and nine). Furthermore, we observe in all the curves, pyramids, swiss cheese and models that dominate safety, not just linear reductionist bias but a deep identity with the fundamentalist doctrines of ‘original sin’ and ‘absolution’. An analysis of the DuPont Bradley Curve demonstrates (Appendix Ten accessed 27 June 2016) a fundamental belief that humans are ‘instinctively unsafe’ (in denial of all evolutionary knowledge and theory)[20]. We then observe that human-nature-as-it-could-be is to achieve zero, through instruction (a wonderful platform to sell training). Thus we recognise Augustinian ethics and Protestant work ethic theology in safety ideology embedded in the Zero Accident Vision (, Accessed 27 June 2016). This is what Dekker rightly calls ‘A Western Salvation Narrative’ ( Accessed 27 June 2016).

What is even more unusual is that the curriculum trains safety people in a ranged of biased[21] investigative methods without any skill development in counseling victims, families, understanding trauma, pastoral care or psychosocial factors[22]. How strange, when in the field and on site, it is those engagement skills that are most required by those first on the scene and in ongoing support (apart from calling for professionals and enacting emergency procedures). What is the point of investigation mechanics but without any focus on pastoral care? Instead, Safety is now known by its culture of being first to judge and last to counsel[23].

Another myth perpetuated in the hidden curriculum is that safety advisors and safety managers are responsible for safety on site, that under the law a safety person is a PCBU, when they are not. Indeed, but many safety people assume this position and project a complementary sense of fear associated with such responsibility. This is then further exacerbated by court dramatics (mock courts) in the sector masking fear in training.

In reality what a safety person should be doing is providing help, support and coaching, yet under the WHS curriculum safety people are not trained sufficiently in effective communication, consultation skills or how to listen in order to offer these well. Similarly, safety people are not trained in the fundamentals of human perception and motivation to a sufficient level. Many safety people scratch their heads in wondering why people don’t comply with safety systems other than thinking that people are either stupid or have no ‘common sense’ (yet another myth perpetuated in safety).

The third myth to consider is that safety work is all about counting and reporting (supported by ontological alchemy). Somehow it has been imagined that numerical data is connected to the existence of safety. Rather than understanding the nature of hindsight bias or the nature of history, Safety uses past data to project and attribute meaning where there is none. A full study of the myth of numeric and counting is documented in Long, R., Smith, G., and Ashhurst, C., (2016) Risky Conversations, The Law Social Psychology and Risk, Scotoma Press, Canberra. Of particular note is the findings of the Pike River Royal Commission ( accessed 27 June 2016) that clearly demonstrated that numeric and injury rates not only don’t indicate the presence of safety but further, actually delude and distract from the purpose of safety.

What is the hidden curriculum in the focus on numerics? The first is that numbers matter more than people, that the first task of a safety person is to sit in front of a computer, count and report on their counting. This in turn creates mythical priorities in work so much so, that the industry debates whether the word ‘human’ or ‘person’ should even be included in a safety mission or vision statement.[24] Similarly, have a look at any collection of safety vision and mission statements and look for other words like ‘learning’, ‘perception’ and ‘decision making’ and see if they match the emphasis on ‘vigilance’, ‘compliance’ and ‘regulation’.

What helps sustain such myths is a WHS curriculum immersed in a worldview of mechanistic, regulatory, systems and binary thinking.

So, whilst the challenge is to reform the WHS curriculum, it is also a challenge to reform the culture (collective unconscious) and semiosphere[25] of the industry. If there is to be any change to do Safety Differently there must be a change in language, discourse to a people-centric worldview. This challenge will not be possible without a transdisciplinary approach[26] to tackling the ontology of Safety and a broadening of the foundations of the WHS curriculum.

A transdisciplinary approach doesn’t mean ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’, but rather a welcoming of new worldviews, greater diversity and new ontologies into the sector. One can look at the table at Appendix One and rather than ask about the validity of each school of thought ask how the collective coherence[27] of the whole might help mature Safety.

The Challenges Ahead

In the short history of Work Health and Safety, several disciplines have come to assume a privileged knowledge about risk in the safety industry, these are: engineering, hard science and law. This has led to a narrow discourse and semiology centred around the mechanics of hazards and the regulation of protection. It should be noted that a critique of the current culture of safety and the safety curriculum should not be understood as being anti-engineering or anti-regulation. Rather, the call for reform is for a broader trans-disciplinary approach that would include these ‘hard’ sciences. Neither is this paper seeking to ‘psychologise’ or ‘socialise’ safety. Safety must resist the reactive binary thinking embedded in such discourse.

If Safety is a ‘wicked problem’ then tackling this wicked problem will require a trans-disciplinary/intra-theoretical approach. The work of Klein (2009, 2015) demonstrates that as the world increases in complexities of systems and ‘wickedity’, only trans-disciplinary approaches can comprehend and better tackle the fragmentation and intractability of many modern problems, including risk and safety. Just one example of risk and safety as a wicked problem is explained by Taleb in Anti-Fragility (2012, p.71).

When you are fragile, you depend on things following the exact planned course, with as little deviation as possible – for deviations are more harmful than helpful. This is why the fragile needs to be predictive in its approach, and, conversely, predictive systems cause fragility. When you want deviations, and you don’t care about the possible dispersion of outcomes that the future brings, since most will be helpful, you are anti-fragile.

This is the challenge for all risk[28]. Human decision making is undertaken from a status of fallibility, working in fallible systems with no capacity to see the future, nor with complete knowledge or knowledge of the by-products of decisions, because human decisions are founded in uncertainty. There can never be any elimination of risk in the real world, neither should there be. The very paradox of human decision making creates trade offs that also operate in uncertainty and are central to the ability to learn and the dynamic of learning. Therefore, the quest for risk avoidance is also the quest for anti-learning. This paradox and many other interdependent intractable paradoxes associated with risk define safety as a wicked problem. Therefore, tackling the challenges of wicked problems cannot offer absolute solutions. Neither should Safety seek solutions in one or two specialist knowledge areas. Indeed, the work of safety in the field is very much a generalist helping occupation not a specialist activity. In any time of crisis experts in law, regulation, engineering, pastoral counseling and project management are brought in[29].

If WHS is a generalist helping occupation then transdisciplinarity can offer an excellent path forward in helping to do safety ‘differently’. Perhaps safety people should not be studying subjects at all but rather more generalist thinking in the transdisciplinary tradition (Klein, 2006, p.16) with subjects like:

· Reflective thinking

· Critical ethics

· Problem solving

· Power and politics

· Valuing

· Self-concepting

· Esteeming

· Constructing meaning

These should not really be thought of as ‘subjects’ but rather skills taught across disciplines using ‘project-based pedagogy’ (teaching methods) or ‘theme-focused’ learning. This would bring the practice of safety much closer to the ‘genuine’ idea of project management rather than the ‘mechanistic process’ of project management (exemplified in Prince2 and Sigma6). Maybe the time will come when the practice of WHS is incorporated into generalist project management and therefore more integrated in to a holistic business model. One can dream.

Humans can at best only improve and seek more effective solutions, the quest for perfection is delusional and life denying. To tackle safety as a wicked problem requires the broadest base possible for effective decision making hence the need for transdisciplinary strategies for tackling risk and safety. Mono-disciplinary approaches at best can only confine safety to a narrow discourse and closed semiology, the current status quo. Safety must recognize that it is also subject to other discourses, other languages and become more open to a different ‘consensually validated grammar’ (Weick, 1979, p. 3).


This paper has raised the need for reformation of the WHS curriculum in Australia. It has proposed that safety cannot be done ‘differently’ without such a reformation. The paper describes the nature of the overt curricula but more importantly the ‘hidden curriculum’ as it creates and merges with the mechanistic worldview that dominates the safety sector.

The paper argues that after 30 years of evolution in safety in Australia that it is confused, fragmented, constrained and indeed, understood as an embuggerance in the general population. This is demonstrated in the work of the ‘safety differently’ movement. The paper poses a set of questions that asks why this status has developed in such a way and what part the overt and hidden curriculum has played a part in this evolution.

The overt curriculum is examined in a general way looking at proportionality and the distribution of ideas and disciplinary focus. Several myths are explored in the safety industry to substantiate the nature of the problem and how the curriculum creates and sustains the current malaise.

The paper concludes by raising the need for a transdisciplinary approach to tackling safety and the need for greater diversity and bridge-building across disciplines. In this way it is suggested that the complexities and wickedity of safety may be properly tackled and Safety might move forward in to a future of greater maturity.


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Norretranders, T., (1991) The User Illusion, Cutting Consciousness Down to Size. Penguin, London.

Postman, N., (1976) Crazy talk, Stupid Talk, How we defeat ourselves by the way we talk – and what to do about it. Delta Books, New York).

Reason, J., (2008) The Human Contribution, Unsafe Acts, Accidents and Heroic Recoveries. Ashgate, Farnham.

Smith Myles, B., Trautman, M., and Schlvan, R., (2004) The Hidden Curriculum. Practical Solutions for Understanding Unstated Rules in Social Situations. APC. Shawnee Mission, Kansas.

Standards Australia. (2010) Communicating and Consulting About Risk. Standards Australia, Sydney.

Stoll, M., McGill, C., and Ritchie, J., (2014) Work, Health and Safety. A Complete Course for Certificate IV and Diploma Courses BSB41412 and BSB51312. McGraw Hill Education. North Ryde.

Taleb, N., (2012) Antifragile. Penguin, London.

Wagner, P., (2010) Safety, A Wicked Problem. (Accessed, 27 June 2016.) also Law (2004).

Weick, K., (1979) The Social Psychology of Organising. McGraw-Hill, New York.

Appendix One – Comparison of Safety Schools of Thought

Note: This comparison is not intended to limit each stream or style to itself. Some approaches to risk and safety build on other styles and combine aspects of more than one style.


Appendix Two – Training Package BSB51312 (Accessed 14 June 2016)


Appendix ThreeUndergraduate OHS (Accessed 14 June 2016)


Appendix FourPost Graduate OHS (Accessed 14 June 2016)


Appendix Five – Contents page – Stoll, McGill and Ritchie (2014) p.271


Compliance 59 pages

Systems 61 pages

Hazards 72 pages

Consultation 58 pages

Incident management 61 pages

Framing of Every Chapter ‘ What the Law says’

Appendix Six – Stoll, McGill and Ritchie (2014) p. 271 and 272


Appendix SevenStoll, McGill and Ritchie (2014) p. 227


Appendix EightStoll, McGill and Ritchie (2014) p. 177


Appendix NineStoll, McGill and Ritchie (2014) p. 147


Appendix Ten – Bradley Curve. ( Accessed 27 June 2016)


Appendix Eleven – The Social Psychology of Risk Body of Knowledge


[1] It is important to note throughout this paper the use of capitalization of the word ‘Safety’. The capitalization of Safety denotes the understanding of Safety as an archetype (Jung, 1959). An archetype has a life of its own and hence in language is personified. Like all ‘types’ the characteristics are generalized and used as an indicator of ‘preference’ and disposition. The critique of the archetype is a mechanism to lay bare, the mechanistic, reductionist and object-centred characteristics of Safety that has become the ‘way of safety’ as its collective unconscious. The characteristics of Safety are well documented (eg. Dekker, Hollnagel et. al., and Reason) as critiqued by the ‘safety differently’ movement (

[2] Unfortunately, the nature of binary thinking and binary questioning that dominates the safety sector perpetuates an either-or approach to all questioning, critique and learning. So much so, that the sector tends to interpret any questioning or critique of the sector as either being arrogant, an attack or ‘anti-safety’. This is also evidenced in the distain the sector has for academic and theoretical work, as if there is a theory-practice divide again, a symbol of non-thinking. The most common label and attacks I have faced from safety people have been that academia makes one irrelevant and out of touch with ‘real’ safety. ‘Real safety’ and understanding of risk is therefore attained on the end of a conveyor belt or in the seat of an excavator, not in gaols or taxi seats.

[3] For an interesting comparison, see Appendix One on Safety Schools of Thought for a generalistic overview of how different groups and ideologies have evolved in that time.

[4] The concept of ‘mentalities’ originates in the Annales school of history and refers to the social psychological realities underpinning human relationships, basic habits of mind, long term trends and analysis of attitudes.

[5] See also

[6] I have written about this here: furthermore, see This Toaster is Hot, one of the most popular sites on ( This is also documented in my first book Risk Makes Sense (Long, 2012).

[7] Further see or download a paper here:

[8] Binary opposition questioning is questioning of entrapment. Binary questions are not open questions but loaded questions and leading questions. The language and assumptions of such questions can only seek one answer, the answer one wants. Such questions assume a simplistic reality and deny complexity. Such questions are not interested in paradox, complexity, trade-offs or by-products, there is only agree or disagree. Similarly, ‘Do you support the war on terror?’ if the answer is no, then you must be a terrorist. This is the crazy binary logic of David Cameron that outraged the House of Commons by calling the Leader of the Opposition a terrorist sympathizer because he didn’t support Cameron’s move into the Syrian war. ( Accessed 13 June, 2016). Binary thinking and questioning is dangerous questioning and is the bedrock of all propaganda. (Ellul, J., (1965) Propaganda. Vintage Books, New York)

[9] For an enlightening insight into the logic of binary thinking perhaps read Kern, T., (2009) Blue Threat, Why to Err is Inhuman. Pygmy Books, Colorado Springs. In this text the author denies human fallibility in the ‘battle’ for perfection in safety. Using a military paradigm the author argues that humans can reach perfection. Similarly, reading Kletz, T., (2001) An Engineer’s View of Human Error. iCheme, Warwickshire, shows what an absence of an anthropological understanding of humans deliver. These are but two examples of the mechanistic mentalitie that dominate safety, thereby endorsing the view that ‘people are the problem’.

[10] (Accessed 27 June 2016) The movement also rejects the binary opposition of zero harm and all that is associated with binary discourse, including its ethic.

[11] It should be noted that the notion of ‘hard science’ intends to highlight a contradiction in the way the word ‘science ‘ is used. Science is a social undertaking, ‘hard science’ denotes the myth of ‘scientific method’ and reductionist methodology associated with rationalist discourse. Further see Kuhn, T., (2000) The Road Since Structure. Uni of Chicago Press, Chicago. Kuhn makes clear that science cannot be separated from the history of science, philosophy of science or the semiotics (hermeneutics) of science. Kuhn uses the concept of ‘incommensurability’ to demonstrate that science has never been a discipline of slow structured progressions but rather a collection of violent paradigm shifts. Feyerabend (1975) proposes that the idea that science can or should operate according to universal and fixed rules is unrealistic, pernicious, and detrimental to science itself.

[12] Read further: Wagner, P., (2010) Safety, A Wicked Problem. (Accessed, 27 June 2016.) also Law (2004).

[13] It should be noted that a methodology is the philosophy that underpins a method. A method is a mechanism for a methodology. A methodology is not a method.

[14] The core business of Human Dymensions is on most of the skills and principles excluded from the WHS curriculum. It is quite odd that a business can thrive on unlearning the hidden curriculum of the WHS curriculum and that the business sector calls out for all the skills and knowledge that the WHS curriculum excludes.

[15] See further Stoll

[16] A paradigm is a comprehensive belief system, worldview, or framework that guides theory and practice in a field.

[17] Ontology denotes the philosophy of the nature of being and the nature of the world.

[18] I founded the discipline of the Social Psychology of Risk in 2003 in application of the general principles of Social Psychology to the challenges of risk. A Body of Knowledge for the Social Psychology of Risk is semiotically mapped in Long, R., Smith, G., and Ashhurst, C., (2016) Risky Conversations, The Law, Social Psychology and Risk. Scotoma Press, Canberra. P. 124. Social psychology is concerns how social arrangements affect judgments and decision making. The Body of Knowledge for the Social Psychology of Risk is at Appendix 11.

[19] All of these factors are tackled in the SEEK program.

[20] It is amazing that the proposition that; humans are by ‘natural instincts’ unsafe, is not challenged in the safety industry. More so, in the Bradley Curve salvation (zero harm) is found in rational decision making and evil is marked by injury rates. Further evidence that Safety can’t think critically.

[21] The subjects of subjectivity and bias are not raised in most discussions in investigations curriculum.

[22] Further see Stoll et. al. pp. 260-289.

[23] This is best demonstrated in any of the safety groups in Linkedin.

[24] I was recently coaching a safety manager in a tier one company who recalled a recent strategic planning day where a debate eschewed about including the word ‘people’ in the company safety mission and vision statement. The word was not included.

[25] The idea of semiosphere (Lotman) denotes all the signs and symbols, and text as symbols, that endorse the current WHS worldview.

[26] The idea of a transdisciplinary approach is best captured by Brown and Harris ( 2014) in The Human Capacity for Transformational Change, Harnessing the Collective Mind. Earthscan, London. The concept of a ‘discipline’ implies a worldview or discourse. Trans-disciplinarily means the traversing across disciplines and integrating of disciplines. Transdisciplinarity activates new knowledge, ideas, procedures, consequences and opportunities through listening and consultation with each discipline to build a new ‘collective coherence’.

[27] See further Ashhurst in Risky Conversation, The Law, Social Psychology and Risk (2016) Scotoma Press, Canberra.

[28] My definition of risk is: ‘The uncertainty associated with human action and the trust and faith required to suspend uncertainty to take that action’.

[29] This has certainly been my experience in the several crises in which I have been involved eg. Canberra Bush Fires and Beaconsfield.

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