Safety as a Worldview

Safety as a Worldview

Safety first text on helmet what businessman is holdingIt is interesting observing the discourse (transmission of power) in safety regarding version 1, 2 or 3 as if Safety is about a ‘style’ of engagement and activity. A recent article by Kevin Jones highlights the problem (Golden Rules, ethics, leadership and workplace safety). As long as Safety remains consumed with ‘style’ rather than ‘substance’, it is not likely to tackle to deep ethical problems it sustains through its discourse of power and control.

Safety has long been about much more than an activity; in recent times it has become a ‘Worldview’ or philosophy with a life of its own. Those who are indoctrinated or ‘enculturated’ into a Safety worldview (or ontology as some prefer) tend to understand Safety as all encompassing. It is an all controlling, all managing paradigm (ideology) that dictates over every-thing – Safety First. Any thought about the implications of such an ideology for ethics and learning gets quickly lost in attachment to the spin of Safety. Kevin is right, there is simply no debate about the ethics of safety in the current climate. I did write about this in my fourth book Following-Leading in Risk, a Humanising Dynamic (pp. 23-31), because I perceived that Safety was so silent and blind to how power and violation are normalized in the practice of safety.

I contacted a friend in a construction company this week to get a look at some of their systems: quality, administration, environment and sustainability, enterprise risk and HR. So, my friend sent me electronic versions of all this documentation and I was most appreciative. The purpose of this request was not so much to use the documentation as to conduct an experiment. Once I had all the relevant files I then asked him for a copy of their Safety Management System (SMS), it was ten times the size of these other systems combined! How is it that Safety has been able to swell to such an extraordinary size in relation to other necessary systems like quality and sustainability? What is it about this thing that dictates its own fear and exponential growth?

A worldview is a philosophy, ideology or controlling methodology. Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) used the word ‘paradigm’ to indicate a controlling framework for understanding the World. Polanyi (The Tacit Dimensions) discusses forms of (tacit) knowledge that we know but can’t tell. Hence the use of the term, ‘paradigm shift’ to indicate a fundamental transformation in philosophy or ‘tacit’ knowing to indicate knowledge at the very core of being.

I am yet to see any paradigm shifts in Safety that move the core discourse of power and control of objects to a more humanizing dynamic, regardless of however one spins the word ‘differently’.

I read with interest much language used by Safety as if something is ‘different’ when indeed, nothing fundamental changes except maybe a change in style or words. I read words about ‘just culture’ and recently ‘safety III’ ( ), when the guiding Worldview has not changed. The all encompassing, all controlling power-centric, systems-centric Worldview remains. Humans remain cogs in a system, simply a ‘human factor’ of a system. Humans serve the system and the system rules all. The language of systems is equated to culture and culture is equated to behaviours (‘what we do around here’). I get requests every week, ‘Rob, can you help us change behaviours?’ No-one asks, ‘Rob can you help us to become more risk intelligent?’

At the foundation of Safety is a controlling methodology or Worldview that supposes that all Safety must be regulated and policed, especially over the will of an ‘other’. The world of Safety often hides behind the rubric of wanting ‘only to help’ in the name of good, to ‘save’ someone from themselves. This enables Safety to maintain a superior morality over and against the morality of others. Then with legislation and regulation in hand (full of subjective intent) Safety is then somehow ‘armed’ with objective intent to will over its objects (people). Then with the creation of some ‘Golden Rules’ frame the subjectivity of risk into an absolute objectivity of the command of zero. People are then able to be sacked for not holding a handrail or for contesting the immutable language of ‘zero’ because Safety rules absolutely. What this creates is a new cultural blindness to the redefinition of freedom, will and ethics. Hence there is no real change, just a lot of talk about it.

When safety encounters ‘messiness’ or ‘wickedity’ it quickly develops a system because all must be controlled. There is no place in Safety for uncertainty, no place for equivocality, mystery or faith, even though complex systems are beyond control and have an emergent life of their own, safety still imagines that there is always a ‘fix’, always a solution, always a reason. Fallibility, mortality and weakness must be denied under this ethic of absolutes that trades off learning for risk.

Once the Safety Worldview is set, Safety declares its own intellectual blackout. It sets its own parameters of freedom and then in the name of freedom enslaves ‘wrong doers’ to greater compliance and worship of systems. Rather than understand that risk is the flip side of learning, all learning (risk) must be banned in a push for absolute compliance and risk aversion. This is the quest of zero, the absolute that must rule absolutely. Then this binary Worldview is denied using binary language about non-binary change. Even in its denial of the dehumanization of systems, it uses systems discourse to explain how it has transformed. Fallibility must be denied and mistakes become ‘sin’ thereby ensuring the infallibility of the Golden Rules. The language of Safety 1, 2 and 3 seems the only revolution that reframes the deckchairs on the Titanic and then tells everyone that nothing is sinking (under the weight of bureaucracy

The only way to really escape the clutches of Safety is to embrace a new Worldview not just in language but also in discourse. If there is to be any transformation in Safety we can’t just put new wine in old wineskins, there must be a real reframing of the Worldview. For example: controlling others in the name of helping is just control masked with helping language. Real helping ( ) doesn’t ‘rule’ over others, command others or use military metaphors to explain Safety. Real helping ( ) uses the word ‘alongside’ rather than the words of ‘over’, ‘for’ and ‘above’. Real helping isn’t seduced by the language of ‘victims’ and ‘warriors’ but rather seeks language that works ‘with’ and facilitates ownership by others for themselves. Real helping knows how to help by enabling ‘the other’ to discover and own their own risk. Real helping enables others to help themselves in tackling ‘their’ risks. If Safety is going to be skilled at helping, then Safety needs to be skilled at being a Skilled Helper (, and you don’t get to be a Skilled Helper from more systems, curves, pyramids, spin and tonnes of regulation. We could start the debate about an Ethic of Safety ( by exploring where safety is most silent and challenging the reigning discourse.

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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