Safety Silences in Culture – Affordances
Another post in the theme of critical factors in culture that Safety is silent about (https://safetyrisk.net/category/safety-culture-silences/).
When it comes to understanding culture, it is essential to understand how affordances drive decision making. Yet, in safety even when there is discussion on ‘safety in design’ you hear nothing about this important psychic force.
An affordance is an embedded unconscious purpose situated in an object or context. On a physical level, an affordance is a ‘property’ of an object or situations that tells one how to behave. For example, a door ‘affords’ being opened and shut, a chair ‘affords’ sitting. Many attendances are learned heuristics that ‘tell’ us how an object should be used or what is required of an agent to use it as it was designed.
When we were kids we used to think it was great fun to go up the down escalator in a shopping centre. The fun was working against the sense of the affordance. We knew how to use the sense of the escalator and what it was designed for but where is the fun in that?
At a higher level of thinking an affordance has its own psychic energy that ‘informs’ unconscious decision making. An affordance has the same properties as a semiotic, with a signifier, signified and significance outcome. In SPoR we know these as ‘iCues’, intelligent clues that are learned, embodied and undertaken unconsciously. For example, we learn as an infant how to use a knife, toothbrush and shoes. Yet, the other evening on a popular evening show (Gruen) the host use a show as a drinking container. This is what is called ‘working against the affordance’. Shoes are not designed as drinking objects, this is not their ‘psychic force’, and for good reasons of hygiene.
Interestingly, even when safety discusses ergonomics it is silent about the important cultural force of affordance. For example, in the book considered the standard text for safety and economics (Kroemer & Grandjean ( Fitting the Task to the Human ) there is no mention of affordance. This is again evidence that the safety industry remains locked into its small engineering cocoon of technical/physical discourse. Safety remains the industry of objects, yet not the way these objects ‘afford’ decision making.
All affordance is ‘enculturated’, we interpret how to use an object by what it is designed for in a culture. Similarly, if one takes an object to a society that doesn’t know it, it has no idea of its utility.
You often see memes and funny videos on the internet posing problems for the younger generation about what to do with a rotary phone (https://www.wvtm13.com/article/hilarious-video-teens-struggle-to-figure-out-how-to-use-rotary-phone/25859520 ) and a host of old devices, appliances etc. Similarly, not being able to read cursive writing or what to do with a cassette. Again, demonstrating that the affordance of an object is ‘enculturated’. The same cultural intelligence is present or not present in safety inductions and instructions.
All technology is embedded with an affordance that is assumed to be culturally normalised across a society. This is why going up the down escalator incurred the ire of shopping mall security guards, but fortunately they couldn’t run that fast.
Why is it that Safety doesn’t talk about affordances?
Most importantly, it is because Safety remains locked into a mono-disciplinary engineering mindset that shows it has no interest in the invisible, unconscious or anything that cannot be seen or measured. You only have to read a book like Kletz, An Engineer’s View of Human Error, to know how impoverished Safety is when it comes to critical thinking in risk.
The key to understanding affordance is understanding the nature of fallible human being (https://www.humandymensions.com/product/fallibility-risk-living-uncertainty/ ). Something in which Zero has absolutely no interest. If you don’t understand kids, you will have no idea why they get so much fun in working against affordances. Didn’t you know, handrails are not for holding but, sliding down on your bum crack!
How crazy is it to parade a theory called ‘human factors’ that shows no interest in the phenomenology of being human but stands as a brand for systems and objects in systems.
Where have you ever read an incident investigation that discusses the way decisions were afforded by context?
Objects are not neutral but embed a psychic energy (https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/79170553.pdf ) as a result of their design (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1745691619868207 ). We know what to do intuitively (heuristically) because we have been enculturated to do it. This is also how we interpret signs and symbols. Two great books on this subject are by Gibson (2015) The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception and Letiche and Lissack (2011) Coherence in the Midst of Complexity. Of course, neither would be on any reading list in WHS or safety culture discussion in safety.
According to its affordance we now understand why a teenager ‘looks’ at a rotary phone and has no idea how to use it.
How often are workers blamed for not knowing something or for ‘mis-using’ something as if utility was ‘common sense’. How fascinating that workers are bombarded with boring data filled inductions and then expected to know what to do.
Understanding cultural affordance should put to bed the nonsense mantra about ‘safety as a choice’ and ‘all accidents are preventable’. Yet, these silly nonsense mantras pervade the industry that imagines that culture is ‘what you do around here’.
If you want to learn about culture, the SPoR module on culture explores the many critical factors in culture that safety is silent about (https://cllr.com.au/product/culture-leadership-program-unit-15-overseas-elearning/ )