Safety Cries Wolf!

Safety Cries Wolf!

imageWhy is Safety so easily sucked into the practice of creating fear? It must be challenging to constantly talk of ‘care’ while at the same time acting in a way that induces anxiety. How does Safety manage this contradiction? How does it cope with the tension? Does Safety understand what this is doing to people?

There are many challenging questions, they become even more challenging when Safety Cries Wolf!

We’ve all heard the children’s parables and cautionary tales that feature the fictional Big Bad Wolf. These are stories where the ‘Wolf’ seeks out either; a young girl in red, three sweet and innocent little pigs or seven young kids. In these stories the Wolf has just one simple goal; to in some way or another manipulate their victim, and then terrorize them. In some cases, this even involves eating their Grandmother!

Safety so often portrays itself as a ‘Big Bad Wolf’; targeting the helpless, the fragile and vulnerable, all in the name of ‘care’ of course. The Safety Wolf hunts for those; who are not expecting them, who seem not capable of understanding the complexities of the Wolf’s warped view of the world, and who are just trying to do their job. The Safety Wolf also has little ability to understand, nor does it have consideration for, how people live in ‘the real world’. For them, it’s Safety at all costs, strangely even if that means harming people along the way. It can be challenging to understand this absurdity in Safety.

The Big Bad Wolf of Safety pretends life isn’t grey and messy, they have eyes that can see only black and white. The ‘choice’ we have, is to be either the Safety Wolf’s enemy (e.g. ‘you don’t care about safety’ or ‘you choose against safety’), or be obedient to what the Safety Wolf expects. Anything in between these two clear options is simply too challenging for the Safety Wolf to understand. This would require an appreciation and acceptance of helplessness, vulnerability and of faith. The Safety Wolf has no time for, nor understanding of, such complexities, diversions and inefficiencies in life. They instead believe in process, rule and method; things that are considerably easier to ‘administer’, ‘enforce’ and ‘dictate’.

There is a problem though….

Just like the famous story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, the reality is that there is no Wolf! That’s right, the Safety Wolf is a myth. However, this does not stop Safety ‘crying’ loudly, as if there were a Wolf. This is because despite Safety constantly warning of danger and promising perils, the reality is that the cry made most often by Safety is just like the cries of ‘the boy’; that is, they are a lie.

While Safety Wolves may wander through sites threatening to prosecute, fine and punish, the reality is that these ‘Wolves’ have little teeth. When their focus is on petty, insignificant and trivial risks, it means that the harsh punishments that they warn of, rarely come to reality. They cry Wolf!

I recently experienced Safety Crying Wolf in action for myself.

I was at a site where there was not one Big Bad Safety (crying) Wolf, but a pack of three! They were on a hunting expedition, searching eagerly for their prey. They were on the lookout for someone who ‘didn’t know the Act’, who was ‘behaving in a way that was way too risky (for them)’, or who ‘chose to be unsafe’. This Safety Wolf Pack couldn’t know what it means to really live, they know only a fantasy world (just like the parables) where everything is safe, predictable and logical.

It didn’t take too long for the Wolves to strike, crying their ‘Gotcha’ moment. However, despite crying like a Wolf, filling their victim with fear and lies, the reality is usually not as bad as they proclaim. How did this particular situation play out?

Someone was using a piece of equipment in a way that the Wolves deemed “ridiculously unsafe” (I’ll spare you the details, but I’ll just say, unsurprisingly, it was not earth shatteringly unsafe, in fact if only their worldview would let them see it, there was a lot going on that was very safe!). The Wolves eyes lit up though, their lips were salivating as if they were preparing for a feast, and they bonded together over catching someone out. It was a big moment for them; but it was just a cry of Wolf.

The reality was that their cry was far louder than the real threat of a bite. Further, all their fear mongering about low risk hazards meant that much time was wasted feeding their desires, where it could be better spent focusing on high risk activities.

You only need to read the thoughts of someone like prominent risk lawyer Greg Smith to understand that most successful legal action within health and safety involves high risk work, not the simple activities that Safety spends much of its time consumed with; this is where the Wolves are in their element though. It’s easier to focus on the basics (e.g. PPE), where they feel comfortable in creating panic, than to do the more critical, challenging and hard work required to focus on the areas that Greg often writes about.

So notwithstanding that the ‘cries’ divert our attention from where we could focus on real risk, there are further threats that emanate from the cry of the Safety Wolf.

We hear so often of Safety’s focus on ‘caring about people’ and about its concern for ‘health and well-being’, yet our lived experience is often something quite different. Safety, often masquerading as ‘care’, seems blind to the harm their Wolf like, ‘huff and puff’, does to people; creating increased anxiety being one example. They have no care for others welfare or well-being. They prefer to threaten people and exercise power. Is that how you demonstrate ‘care’ for another human being? This threatening approach must have an impact on the Wolves themselves though, mustn’t it?

As is the case with many of the children’s stories mentioned above, there are various endings to them depending on which version of the parable you subscribe to. The harshest of the tales usually sees the villain ‘win’. This is where the victim is eaten, or in some other way vanished. However, in other endings, the villain becomes the victim. We can learn a lot from these fictional stories.

The poignant thing for Safety in ‘Crying Wolf’ is that while it may feel like it has ‘won’, by pouncing on some everyday person going about their work, they in fact become the victims themselves as their lives become further trapped in a world of extreme ‘technique’. When life is entrapped in a web of absolute efficiency, of binary cognizing and of a focus on self (rather than as a social being), there is no real living. Instead, life is a search for more efficient, safe and secure means of being. This leads to a pathway of loneliness. This is how Safety, in crying Wolf, becomes the victim; by adoring ‘technique’.

When life is focused on self, how can we are truly claim to care about one another’s health and safety? When we view conversing with others as a ‘technique’ rather than about building relationships, how can we really be interested in their welfare? How can we profess to love others when we approach life armed with a set of regulations, clipboard and breach notices? What kind of love and care is this?

During my recent experience with the (cry of) the Safety Wolf Pack, there was no care, nor love, for another person. How could there be when they:

· Used their power to intimidate others (“I’m an authorised person under the Act and you are required to answer my questions”);

· Regularly reminded us of their superior knowledge of Safety through comments like; “we’ve been trained in the Act and you would not understand” and “you just need to follow our directions”.

· Wrote every single detail in their notepads. There was no sign of trust in the people they were talking with (to), everything had to be formally recorded.

· They asked questions not seeking to understand, rather seeking to trap people.

If only their methodology would allow them to adopt methods that ‘seek to understand’, to discover and to share, maybe we would all learn more. But no, Safety’s (crying Wolf) worldview doesn’t allow them to see outside the paradigm of control, subservience and obedience. Imagine what would happen if they opened their worldview from this ‘technicist’ approach, to a more human one?

Have you heard the cry of the (Safety) wolf?



Robert Sams



Book: Social Sensemaking – Click HERE to Order

See what happens when the Safety Wolf meets it’s match:

Rob Sams
Rob Sams
Rob is an experienced safety and people professional, having worked in a broad range of industries and work environments, including manufacturing, professional services (building and facilities maintenance), healthcare, transport, automotive, sales and marketing. He is a passionate leader who enjoys supporting people and organizations through periods of change. Rob specializes in making the challenges of risk and safety more understandable in the workplace. He uses his substantial skills and formal training in leadership, social psychology of risk and coaching to help organizations understand how to better manage people, risk and performance. Rob builds relationships and "scaffolds" people development and change so that organizations can achieve the meaningful goals they set for themselves. While Rob has specialist knowledge in systems, his passion is in making systems useable for people and organizations. In many ways, Rob is a translator; he interprets the complex language of processes, regulations and legislation into meaningful and practical tasks. Rob uses his knowledge of social psychology to help people and organizations filter the many pressures they are made anxious about by regulators and various media. He is able to bring the many complexities of systems demands down to earth to a relevant and practical level.

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