Potato Head Risk and Safety

Potato Head Risk and Safety

Mr. Potato Head - Construction Worker Half-Profile

The purpose of this article is to introduce you to ‘potato heads’ and ‘spud heads’ in risk and safety. Before we get too deep into this risk and safety potato heads it might be useful to introduce some potato head background.

Mr Potato Head (first called ‘funny face man’) arrived in Australia in the 1960s but was invented by George Lerner in 1949 and was first manufactured by Hasbro in 1952. When Mr Potato Head first came to Australia he was affectionately known as ‘Little Mr Potato Head’ and made famous on Playschool. He was the first toy ever advertised on TV.

As kids our first Potato Heads were purchased as just body parts and applied to an actual potato. This was great, we could make characters and play with the veggies at home before they were mashes in the mix for dinner. However it wasn’t long before some spud heads complained about the sharp edges of the parts to push into the potatoes. Other complained about rotten veggies and a host of safety concerns so, Hasbro was forced to make parts that were blunt and these wouldn’t go easily into a spud. In 1964 Hasbro manufactured a plastic potato head (body) with holes for body parts. We loved the potato head games we made because you could make a potato head anything we wanted, he was a chameleon, a fake. Later in Toy Story, Spud Head was the cynic.

Mr Potato Head Affectionately known as ‘tater head’ or ‘little taters’, we originally played a dress up game using real potatoes, throwing a 6 or 1 to earn the right to put a piece in the potato, the first to build a full body of all parts was the winner. The loser was usually called a ‘spud head’.

Mr Potato Head is one of the only toys on the market that has detachable body parts. This enables ‘little taters’ to be anything, more recently he’s been made a Star Wars character (Death Tater), Batman (not yet hazardman), farm head, Taters of the Lost Ark and Spiderman. In 1995, Mr. Potato Head made his debut in Hollywood with a leading role in the Disney/Pixar animated feature Toy Story, with the voice provided by comedian Don Rickles. In 2011 after dozens of new transformations, Mr Potato Head was given the name ‘Jason’. Mrs Potato Head came on the scene after a few years along with other vegetable and fruit changing characters, first appearing in Toy Story 2.

What has this got to do with risk and safety? Could the Potato Head and Spud Head be the symbol for work in risk and safety?

Being a Potato Head or Spud Head?


I often say to my post grad students that being a risk and safety person is learning to be bi-polar. Risk and safety people have to keep one group happy in their mythology (usually people who know nothing about risk and safety) whilst on the other hand advising and attending to ‘real’ risk and safety. It was the apostle Paul (1 Cor 9: 22) who said he became all things to all people for a higher motive. Yes, risk and safety people are potato heads. Risk and safety people are able to ‘change to engage’ the audience for a greater good. Unfortunately, there is a down side to this transformation, that’s when ‘potato heads’ become ‘spud heads’. One becomes a ‘spud head’ when one perpetuates risk and safety mythology, more crazy excesses of risk aversion and more risk and safety insanity that sacrifices and trades off learning for hyper anxiety. Risk and safety people unfortunately become ‘spud heads’ when they are unable to discern real risk. Maybe for some its ‘spud head’ by day and subversive ‘potato head’ by night?


A potato head knows they are a potato head, but a spud head doesn’t know they are a ‘spud head’. A potato head as a cynic is the spud head who knows everything. A spud head only knows that no one else knows what they know. The spud head is Hazardman, crusader able to dominate and jump over everyone for their crusade.

Here’s what a spud head does: normalizes the nonsense of zero, accepts ‘double speak’, fosters more sausage factory bureaucracy, revels in the anxieties of risk aversion, dumbs down others (diminishing ownership and learning) and makes ‘safety’ the new swear word on site. If you want to piss someone off just invoke the word ‘safety’ and do what you want, jump all over others in the name of doing something for their good. Then there is the cloning of WHS Cert 4s RPL so that we end up with a group of people who do spud head stuff and think and speak in ‘spud head’. Spud heads foster fear and monologue in blind compliance, are consumed by engineering and regulation and, contribute to the boom in safety snake oil – it’s all spud head stuff. Then they make ‘spud heads speak’ – ‘spud head stuff’, dancing to the tune of ‘zero harm’, ‘all accidents are preventable’ and the mythology of injury data collection. They look like a potato head but they are not, they masquerade as a ‘tater’, when they are really just are a spud.

Recently, Christopher Pyne, Minister for Education called The Opposition Leader Bill Shorten ‘Mr Potato Head’ because he said Shorten could put on ‘any face he wants’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2oRZ6u0Di6A ). This made me think, what is the ‘face’ of risk and safety? Are we spud head who perpetuate the mythology of risk aversion and zero or a proud potato head? Is risk and safety spending days in front of a computer preparing reports on injury data whilst the real indicators of culture go underground? Yeah, that’s spud head stuff. Is it policing workers on PPE so that everyone hates the safety police? Is it walking about ‘spying’ on workers and telling them how to think? Are safety people the cynics who know everything and who just try to solve everything by ‘tossing’ non-conformers ‘overboard’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9rlY-TMMhO4). There is no doubt about it, risk and safety does have an image problem (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/david-cameron-i-will-kill-off-safety-culture-6285238.html).

So, when people want to do things to others, dominate others and control others it seems that the word ‘safety’ is invoked and then we are justified do anything to others, this is the message behind This Toaster is Hot. Spud heads look like they want to do the ‘right thing’ when in reality, they want to do the powerful thing, spud head. As long as we invoke the word ‘safety’ this justifies any kind of spud head policy and behaviour. I was in an office the other day where a sign was placed outside the kitchen, ‘no entry due to OHS’. It wasn’t the real reason for the need for care, someone was just being a ‘spud head’. I’ve heard of inductions being required for vacuum cleaners on a tier one project and all kinds of crazy stuff in the name of risk and safety, when in reality it’s just spud heads wrecking the sense of risk and safety and making it non-sense.

Sometimes risk and safety people just become entrapped into spud head activity and don’t realize it. Some just don’t think or, can’t think and reflect long enough about what they say and stand for, without any thought about the trajectory of their position. For example, accepting the absolutes and ideology of zero as if in the long run it won’t lead to the dehumanising of others. This is just spud head stuff.

Lets look at a few more spud head activities in risk and safety:

  1. Coming on to site saying there is a safety issue when in fact there’s no such thing, it’s a political issue.
  2. ‘Falling apart’ when people make choices that we think are stupid because they won’t do as we ‘tell’ them. Then we put on the angry face and think that overpowering others creates ownership.
  3. Putting on the zero harm face, presenting statistics, knowing it has nothing to do with culture, risk or safety.
  4. Putting on the superman (Hazardman) suit and pretending to be the saviour of everything, this is good spud head cynic stuff.
  5. Thinking that everyone else is a spud head except me.
  6. Thinking there’s such a thing as ‘common’ sense and using such mythology to blame and label others.
  7. Accepting safety policies and processes that dehumanize others.
  8. Blaming, ego-seeking, grandstanding and territory protecting behind the mask of safety.
  9. Thinking that risk and safety is simple when in fact it is a wicked problem. Denying complexity and putting your spud head in the sand.
  10. Continually repeating the nonsense language and discourse of risk aversion that misdirect people about risk, safety, learning and imagination.

You might think of some more spud head or potato head ideas, stay tuned for the ‘spud head competition’. However, there are advantages to being a potato head? What good can risk and safety people do by being bi-polar? Look out for the ‘potato head competition’, we want to hear your stories about what it means to be a potato head.

IMG_0621The ability to discern the difference between spud head and potato head stuff is what Real Risk is about. And don’t forget, Mrs Potato Heads, you are in this too, maybe with some special contributions.

What does it mean to be a female ‘potato head’ or ‘spud head’ in industry? Are things changing or is it still the macho macho spud head stuff that makes female potato heads into spud heads. We want to know.


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.

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