Safety Culture does Exist

Safety Culture does Exist

toxic safety cultureThe safety industry was created by Acts of Parliament across Australia in the 1980s. In a very short time a safety industry developed with invested power and a range of characteristics that clearly demonstrate that the safety industry has a culture. Indeed, it would seem strange to describe any activity or cult to have no culture and there is plenty of evidence to demonstrate that the safety industry has all the elements of both. Indeed, the demand to measure everything, including culture, is one of the cultural characteristics of safety. This is partly the reason why safety has so much trouble with culture because of its anchoring to reductionist mechanistic frameworks of understanding knowledge. Culture is known implicitly (Polanyi) more than explicitly through reductionist methodology. Just because culture may be difficult to measure in conventional reductionist ways does not mean that culture cannot be known.

Defining culture may be complex indeed, a wicked problem, but this brings us to one of the first characteristics of safety culture, simplistic binary thinking (I have written on this many times before, We know a great deal about the culture of safety, just because it cannot be measured under reductionist assumptions about measurement doesn’t mean it cannot be known.

So lets get started on identifying some of its cultural characteristics.

  1. Safety is known for its culture of poor training (two thirds of all training is locked into regulation), poor knowledge and its love of ‘dumb down’ (demonstrated by the love of zero). One can find everywhere the accepted maxim in safety that culture is ‘what we do around here’. This pathetic definition not only guides a mechanistic and behaviorist focus but is evidence of the normalization of simplistic dumb thinking as acceptable. This definition and associated simplistic language (a core element of culture) has attracted mechanistic disciplines to the safety industry and exclude transdisciplinary learning ( ). This is evidenced by the SIA Strategic Statement with no vision for curriculum reform in the Safety Industry. ( So, a peak body advocating more of the same assists the status quo.
  2. Safety is known for its preoccupation with measuring and mechanistic worldview. The love of curves, pyramids, injury measuring, TRIFR and fundamental attribution error are key characteristics (and artefacts) of safety culture. (, In combination with dumb down and a lack of critical thinking, all kinds of absurd conclusions are made from data that has no bearing on the nature of safety. We see evidence of this with DuPont and the discourse of zero ( and with many tier one’s who push safety as a numerical activity (
  3. Safety is known for its denial of fallibility, mistakes, uncertainty, risk and humanity. The quest for and, language/discourse of perfection, dominates the airwaves of safety ( ). In total contradiction to all knowledge on the psychology of goals (, ), it is only safety that sets goals of impossibility as reality and then deems such nonsense goals as sensible. Such a mindset is aided and assisted by simplistic thinking locked in a binary worldview, again a result of poor cheap training and the absence of any sense of sophistication in learning and education.
  4. The safety industry is characterized by ‘do-gooding’, crusading ( and wowserism ( . Because all harm and risk is evil (and religiously feared ) then all risk must be opposed and made non-sense (any failure in risk deems one a bloody idiot – ). Apparently, it is only the safety industry that both understands and can lead the way to zero harm.
  5. Rather than focus on learning, safety is anti-learning because uncertainty, discovery, risk, adventure, play ( ) and harm must be eradicated. The very core elements that are required for learning are opposed by safety because binary zero must guide all things. This is evidenced in the religious nature of curves and the desire for infallibility ( ). The climate that is associated with this quest for perfection is characterised by fear. Safety is the industry known by all it fears rather than by what it can learn.
  6. Safety is known for excess and suppression of freedom. The ‘This Toaster is Hot’ site ( shows just how extensive the stupidity extends when safety dumb down gets on the scene.

  7. Safety is known for its fixation on objects and ignorance of subjects (, ). There is no real coverage of the human sciences in any safety training in Australia. Naming the industry ‘professional’ without any means to make the industry a profession, is one of the products of dumb down binary thinking. Most safety training is fixed on hazards and hazard prevention (objects) and avoids discussion of risk and human decision making because this requires some knowledge of anthropology, sociology, psychology, history, critical theory, cultural theory, theology, ethics, religion, philosophy and education (all with no presence in safety training). Instead, safety is known as the activity of counting. How do we know about safety, we count and attribute some connection between objects, numbers and human decision making.

  8. Safety is known for an absurd notion of freedom and decision making ie. ‘safety is a choice you make’. This then makes all harm the result of stupidity. With no knowledge of the unconscious, collective unconscious and arational thinking, safety declares that all decision making is rational and reductionist. The behaviourist assumptions of the mechanistic safety machine rattles on in total ignorance to what it doesn’t know because it doesn’t want to know it. Safety then becomes an engineering exercise rather than a human helping activity.

  9. Safety is known by its matrices and associated mumbo jumbo ( ). The idea that drops calculators and risk matrices have meaning is just more concocted symbolism that reinforces absurd assumptions about measurement. There is no association between a risk matrix or a drops calculator and the effective management of risk. Such things serve the place of religious artefacts in safety worship. What is most clear is that safety has no idea of the nature of trade-offs and by-products ( associated with decision making. More success for dumb down.

  10. Whilst evidence for all these cultural characteristics is extensive perhaps nothing is more overwhelming than the cultural language of safety. Any exploration of safety texts, courses, training materials and policy documents provides extensive evidence of what safety is preoccupied by and what it choses to omit from its discourse. The language of safety is always one of telling, policing, correcting, punishing, blaming and controlling. It is from this dumb down discourse that we get absurd safety discourse such as Dumb Ways to Die ( and Hazardman ( ). Only safety could think that a cartoon about characters committing suicide could be a deterrent for risk in the rail corridor. Only safety could think internet hits not a change in injury, was a measure of success.

So, there we have 10 examples of safety culture. It does exist, even though its toxicity continues, very little is being done to address the many characteristics of that culture.

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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