Safety Sacraments and Rituals

Safety Sacraments and Rituals

easter safetyAs Australians approach the time of year most dense with symbolism (ANZAC and Easter), it may be helpful to ponder the nature, power and significance of symbols, sacraments and rituals in relation to the safety industry. After all, the safety industry is now imbued with as many rituals as any religion, none more religious than the faith/belief in zero harm.

We know that symbols are the foundation of all ritual and sacrament, and when a symbol is made sacred, regardless of its meaninglessness, its compliance becomes an identity factor in any society. Once a ritual is made sacred it then takes on political significance in any organization.

When I was a child Friday abstinence (from meat) was a significant part of Australian life. It kept the local fish shop quite busy. We still see the rush on fish markets on a Good Friday but people no longer know why this ritual continues ( ). The ritual of abstinence of meat goes back to early beliefs about Good Friday indeed, the ritual of Lent is also attached to abstinence. Further read Douglas on symbolism, rituals and sacraments in Natural Symbols ( It’s easy to find out if some thing or a ritual has been sacralised by a group by trying to take it away. You will pretty soon find out the power of its political significance.

All symbols are interpreted and are given meaning by a society or group. As Australia has become more secular, the yearning for rituals and sacraments has not disappeared but rather has simply shifted somewhere else but is no less intense. We see the developing Nationalism around the ANZAC sacrament/ritual as a good example, even the deifying of football players into warriors and hero’s at ANZAC football games ( ). When something is made sacred it takes on a life of its own and its symbolism becomes identified with belonging, compliance and in-groupness. Then once politcised becomes fair game in playing for territory and loyalty/identity.

I was at a school function for my grandchildren a few weeks ago and happened to be talking to the Deputy Principal (DP) and he mentioned in passing that he wanted to bring in some ‘free play’ into the curriculum. In our discussion he mentioned he had downloaded a risk assessment and was content that the risks of ‘free paly’ in the playground were ‘covered’. I asked to see the assessment and so he emailed it to me. I received 16 pages of unmitigated safety gobbledygook, and when reading it realized that most of it would make the school more liable should something go wrong.

In the document of course were the sacred sacraments and rituals of the Risk Matrix, Bow Tie, Pyramid and Hierarchy of Controls. The DP had no idea what these were but felt comfortable that some safety person had sacralised them as essential to a risk assessment. When any of these are challenged most safety people can’t even rationalize why they are used or how they make sense. This is similar to most theologies in the church. And this is an essential of a sacrament. You don’t have to know what it is in order to believe it is efficacious.

I read the document and on return asked the DP if I could go on a walk and do an actual risk assessment. We took nothing with us, no checklist, no ritual sacraments and no safety mumbo jumbo rituals. All we needed was some basic questions about how children think and behave at play along with some mutual study in the study of child development psychology. We walked for about 40 minutes and I wondered what all the anxiety was about, there was only one place in the school yard where there was any significant risk and if anything this was over-supervised. The school was easily covered by how it had tackled risk and clearly exercised due diligence. As we walked back to his office I offered to write his risk assessment and to keep it under two pages. You would have thought I’d given him a birthday present, he was so appreciative.

It’s so easy to take safety rubbish out of a risk assessment when most of it is a ritualistic sacrament. Unfortunately, in the safety industry, the attachment of analysis to meaningless rituals and sacraments in risk assessment ads no value to thinking about risk. But when a sacrament becomes a political tool for belonging/identity it actually creates legal liability because none of this could ever be explained rationally in court (,, , ). This is the theology of the risk industry. The sacrament of the risk matrix will get you in a whole heap of trouble in court if you think you know how to explain its efficaciousness.

5. ALARP from Human Dymensions on Vimeo.

Most of the rituals and sacraments in safety are delusional myths that convince people that they have undertaken a risk assessment. Most symbols and myths are much more about acts of faith/belief than thinking about risk. They serve the same values as a sacrament/ritual in a cult. Similarly, all this preoccupation with injury rates and trifr rates is also ritualistic mumbo jumbo that has no cultural meaning. In this case a 40 minute walk and chat about supervision and we achieved a sensible outcome. Here we were with 500 children in 5 different areas of the school all playing, running about, excited and being normal and what a responsibility it is with accountability for the safety and risk of 400 people’s children. Could there be any greater responsibility? Why then would someone want to ruin that life with the rituals and sacraments of safety that ad no value to tackling risk?

What has Safety turned itself into? Why all this religious like beliefs and attributions of effectiveness to rituals that have no meaning ( ). Ah yes, of course, zero harm, the ultimate act of faith and denial of fallibility ( ). Why does this idea that the production of a document full of safety sacraments and rituals keeps people safe? It makes as much sense as a St Christopher medallion or cross bringing eternal life. Oh I forgot, safety too has its ‘cardinal’ and life saving rules! Safety saves! ( Sounds like a Hillsong convention (,, )

Obviously what we need in safety is more sacraments and rituals to save us from our sins. It always helps the guilty feel much better when eternal life is processed through rituals, sacraments and cardinal rules.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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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.

13 Replies to “Safety Sacraments and Rituals”

  1. I can recall arriving at one particular coal seam gas processing facility near Chinchilla and a safety consultant had completed a risk assessment covering the use Glen 20 disinfectant surface spray to clean bench tops in a warehouse crib room. It consisted of over a dozen pages and the safety data sheet was attached. It took over a week to complete the task and was invoiced at $300 per hour.

    Meanwhile, emergency warning sirens and strobe lights at the processing plant had been mechanically mounted but not electrically terminated. No emergency response and evacuation drills had been conducted although the facility had been officially commissioned and audited by the regulatory authority. The project was littered with obese and loudmouthed septic tanks preaching leadership and zero harm at morning pre-starts and discarded cigarette butts were evident outside the permit to work office…… Houston we have a problem.

  2. Happy Easter Rob. The issue for the DP and others is they actually know how to keep kids safe and also enable useful learning through play, but they have been conditioned to think they need something else to confirm this and act out of fear. The fear being if they have not completed what is thought to be right in terms of a risk assessment, and what could be evidence of taking appropriate and reasonable steps than having 30 pages of written stuff to present, then there will be consequences of unknown scale apart from max fines are now being levied at $???,???.?? rates as per the last publicised “successful” prosecution. What better way to learn about real risk than climbing a tree? Kids work out how high they can feel comfortable going, learn how to test a theory about how well they have predicted the outcome of their next intended action and do so while overcoming fear. An even better learning could be for the DP to set the risk assessment as a project for those who are supposedly putting themselves at risk and the answers that come back would be learning for them and others ie get the kids to be involved.

    1. Charles, you are so right. I think the risk industry could bottle fear and make a fortune out of it, interestingly coming from the word ‘fortuna’ which is fortunate. I was at a safety conference last week and had to walk out because of all the incessant nonsense being peddled from the front of the stage. I had to speak following and I cannot believe that normal people just lap up this rubbish and call it safety. The DP had no idea what Due Diligence is, like many in safety and was relieved from his doubts by one simple sense-able walk. There’s a lot of money to be made in religion, especially through the saving of sins and burning in hell. Oh, pass the cardinal rules and pray for forgiveness!

  3. Bernard, the alarm at Notre Dame Cathedral went off 23 minutes before the fire brigade was called, just like the factors that often lead to inaction. There are hundreds of social psychological stressors that influence our decisions, those in the cathedral either thought it was a false alarm or in dread impossible because there were no flames or smoke. It’s the last thing we want to burn down and belief is not rational.

  4. The typical written risk assessment is embarrassingly simple and surrounded in legalistic language to make it sound important. Adding disclaimers such as “ensure the process is led by someone with some type of formal training”, feels like a surplus of hero myth spilling over such that Safety Superman is able to step in and save the day. The overwhelming need to document risk assessment conversations, often never to be re-read or visited again is a sin against safety. How did we get to such a stupid place? And this is an occupation that wants to be a profession?

  5. Suzanne, unfortunately the industry was started by a very closed worldview associated with engineering and regulation, hence the mess Safety is in now. It’s lack of knowledge about culture basics such as religion and theology means that it is so susceptible to the attractions of those dynamics. That is, it doesn’t have the capability to recognize or identify its own sacred cows and religious rituals. So much of what is documented in safety is not required to be documented but comes out of a fear of non-measurment by the limited engineering worldview. When it comes to court the core evidence is testimonial that seeks to validate against documentation. If there is no documentation then testimony on its own becomes the validation of process. Historians call this oral and ‘first hand’ evidence. The fixation on paperwork by the industry is a mental health condition fostered by fear and ignorance.

  6. This has been a very well supported post on Linkedin! Some quotes:

    This is great! I “read” aka glance through horribly long risk assessments / JSEAs / SWMSs etc etc often and they drive me demented. People think they’re covering their backsides but all they’re doing is providing a big list of things that will never get done. I have much more faith in the 2 page risk assessment of relevant information – save the paperwork for high risk tasks and then it will stand out as important

    What a great article, as someone that is battling the “regulator” in court for the gaul of defying thir instruction to add utter crap and nonsense into a emergency plan I applaud all involved in this article

    Fascinating and thought provoking article. Thanks for posting.

    Would love to see that two page risk assessment.

    It is difficult to take some risk assessments seriously. For example, the task of sandbagging, where the hazard of getting sand in your eye or getting tired apparently requires a risk assessment in writing, of course all with a medium risk outcome. The language used in the document is legalistic and there are disclaimers. Anyways apparently it takes 3 pages to point out to someone that you could get sand in your eye and may get tired if sand bagging. So as not to call this type of safety initiative dumb, I have decided that workers must be dumb because I cannot think of any other reason for writing up a document like this, in this way, for this reason. But I don’t really think workers are dumb. What is scary is that the assessment is applauded by the relevant safety association and the 6 municipalities who proudly display their logos so I hope I am not going to be crucified for bashing this ritual.

  7. Dave, glad someone connected with it. I think the industry has a huge misunderstanding of just how all of this works, exactly how religion works. The mythology that is now normalised in the industry is astounding, and is given efficaciousness that simply doesn’t exist. We might as well be worshiping statues and relics and rush in to save them when the church burns down.

  8. Having recently joined a local SES unit, as a newbie I couldn’t help but notice how pervasive ‘safety as a ritual’ is in the learning material and how much it contrasts against what happens out in the field.

    The learning material contains all the usual colourful risk matrices, hierarchy of control and assigning a risk score to a task, and yet you go out in the field either on a job or for training and it’s very much about ‘Humble Enquiry’ (i.e. ‘What are we doing? How are we doing it? What can go wrong? What do we need to prevent things from going wrong?’). There is also an emphasis on personal responsibility and reflection without blame – i.e. ‘Am I trained, fit and able to do this?’. And there is no paperwork required.

    If it takes five minutes of discussion and no paperwork to do a risk assessment to abseil down a cliff face to rescue a person, you have to wonder how much time is wasted in writing a 16 page risk assessment for children to play in a playground. Mind boggling stuff.

  9. Well said David. I spoke to some fire fighters once who told me just how stupid it gets, they write crazy risk assessments when things are calm and going well and then when it’s an emergency when all hell is breaking lose, there’s no time to stop and reflect and people’s lives are at risk, it all goes out the window and they act on intuition and tacit knowledge. The most unfortunate part of all this, is the mythology the industry puts in its sacraments and rituals, that are largely ineffective. Most of what is paraded a safety process is more like the waving of a cross before prayer to an object, in court most of it is shown up as nonsense. But, we won’t ever see these disappear because of their religious power and associated fear supported by politicization of the process by vested interests. Mind boggling indeed. The worst offenders seem to be the ones who think they are the least religious.

  10. You should get Teacher Tom on board!, What a great way to look at risk.
    I am regularly involved with introducing Health & Safety Reps to the world of safety and I must say this article in particular has resonated deeply with me because most of the BS that is continually dished up these days by so called “safety professionals” really misses the point. I tend not to be someone who comments but I couldn’t help myself here!
    I try to get my students to understand that its ok to metaphorically spin around and fly off the playground but if that can happen we need to just build the playground that still lets it happen, but…..when we fly off, we land on something that doesn’t smash us to pieces (Risk Appetite).
    I think about the old playground rides that I had as a kid and the outrageous dangers we faced, hot slides, rusty sheet metal & broken bits hanging off, now we have gone way too far and sanitised our children’s play to the point they just cannot have the experience of learning. Finding somewhere in the middle ground is where we should be aiming in my opinion, fun and scary with consequences but designed so that the consequences are educational without being, on the whole, disfiguring or destructive, basically safety as a design principal not as the end goal (Zero).
    Great site by the way, so many thought provoking ideas and I just love the idea of questioning the ridiculous notion of Zero. Kindred spirit.

  11. Thanks Jason, the thing about Safety is it isn’t professional and has a long way to go before it will be so. Just go to any conference and look at the immature nonsense about, amazing. There would be no teacher in the world who would pruik the nonsense of zero.

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