Safety is an Art
Safety has much more to do with Art, History and Philosophy than it has to do with Science, Engineering and Law. I recently wrote The Target Drives the Method about the subjectivity of determining ‘significance’ that is a precursor to this discussion. Despite the perception that so many in safety believe that injury data is objective and communicates ‘significance’, in reality it is a philosophical position that determines or ‘attributes’ significance. Safety is an ‘art’ because it communicates something beyond itself.
In some ways the notion of ‘safety’ escapes definition and is certainly complex to define. Many of those attributed as experts in safety end up with rather elongated definitions and complex descriptions of what safety is. If we look at programs for safety conferences, some claiming to be innovative or having ‘vision’ in safety, the priority remains focused on law, bureaucracy, legal HR, engineering and science. If there is something to say about human judgment and decision making or similar, that seems to get an afternoon session after 4pm. When something gets a bit earlier on the program that discusses humans, its usually a scientific approach to neuropsychology or similar. A scientific approach to human understanding is still science.
Safety is a social and relational outcome from the way we live together. The metaphors of engineering and science just don’t fit the way humans relate. Relationships are not about objects but subjects. This is why the idea of ‘engineering resilience’ is odd semiotics. Understanding and developing resilience is organic not mechanistic. Safety is a subjective experience, risk is subjectively experienced. Safety communicates something beyond itself.
Whenever I travel overseas or in Australia I try to take extra time to experience the culture and art of the place. This is the case whether it is in the outback, Asia or Europe, the art of the place communicates so much. One can take pictures of art or the place, tell stories about it but this is not quite like the felt experience. One can read about Caravaggio, Rubens or Bosch but when you stand in front of Da Vinci or Michelangelo things are very different. Trying to communicate safety is something like this. ‘Significance’ is socially, philosophically and historically determined.
I remember visiting Pro Hart’s gallery in Broken Hill and being overwhelmed by everything, like a blast on the sensations. Pro collected and purchased so much art and you could walk down the aisle and kick a priceless piece leaning up against the wall, he had no space to hang what was there. When I had a few days in The Hermitage it was just staggering how much art was there. No words had to be said indeed, words would have ruined the experience. Art is something one absorbs and brings in and out of oneself.
We have an art place at home, a place where the grandkids can express themselves and, a display wall where we put up their art so they see how much we value their expression and stories. Often the kids just come in and settle down to drawing and creating just like we might come in to a kitchen and make a coffee or tea. The kids gravitate to art, expression and imagination so easily and it’s great to see how this shapes their thinking. What a shame that we seem to devalue such processes as helpful learning for adults.
If safety is about expanding the imagination and being able to see the unseen, then safety people should be thinking and dialoguing more about art than engineering. Counting safety is nothing like creating safety.
It is interesting to note that nowhere in the safety literature is there much discussion on spacial and visual literacy, semiotics, imagination or humanizing dynamics in managing risk. Instead, the symbol and text that is most used to define safety is a number, zero. What the engineering approach doesn’t realize is that zero is not really a number but an ideology (philosophy) invented to represent nothing and everything. Unfortunately, safety is now under the command of the absolute of zero yet safety is relational. Helping people to know safety is an art. When the two paradigms collide and the mechanics of zero dominates, people become disillusioned with safety. Zero connects with no-one. Many of the things safety people just ‘know’ but can’t explain are much more intuitional an artistic than mechanical. Perhaps safety people need to know more about communicating beyond themselves through semiotics than the current fixation on counting and text.
I also love to experience architecture as art, so much is communicated and learned in spacial and visual experience. Art and architecture are as ancient as civilization itself, they are the rudimentary expression of something more than oneself. As we observe art and architecture we focus much more on relationships, meaning, significance and social expression, when we focus on zero the focus is individualism and counting.
Weick in his first book laments the use of military and inanimate metaphors to describe organizing. Once we start using such metaphors these shape the discourse and understanding of the organizing dynamic, the target drives the method. Of course, we can never get to the absolute of zero, so we are most often stuck at a fraction of 1. Unfortunately the zero focus guides the whole safety focus to lower order goals (quantitative outcomes) whereas a relational and artistic focus guides us towards higher order goals (qualitative outcomes). As Buber notes, one is the number of loneliness, the real expression of human living can be no less than two (i-thou).
Maybe safety training should start in an art gallery not the classroom.