One of the trade-offs in the limited STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) curriculum (https://safetyrisk.net/isnt-it-time-we-reformed-the-whs-curriculum/) in safety is its inability to perceive its own religious trends and superstitions (https://safetyrisk.net/no-evidence-for-the-religion-of-zero/). The strange paradox about blind STEM thinking is that it has fostered the most amazing religiosity and superstitions in culture in the safety industry. Far from being the ‘End of Heaven in the Scientific Age’ as asserted by Dekker, Safety has become the grand bastion of religion and superstition in the Age of Religion. The belief in heaven and the belief in zero are one and the same.
The by-product of STEM-only thinking has led to a 2017 World Congress in Safety that advocates more leap in faith and belief than a Hillsong convention. Even in denial of the religion of safety the SIA used the religious language of agnosticism to assert that zero was a ‘by-line’ to the Safety Congress (https://safetyrisk.net/sia-has-a-bet-each-way-on-zero/). BTW, the Zero ideology was no by-line at the World Congress 2017. The size of the zero campaign coming out of the Congress demonstrates this was not so (https://safetyrisk.net/zero-vision-as-propaganda/).
The foundation of superstition is false attribution or what is known as fundamental attribution error (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamental_attribution_error ). When a human makes something a superstition, an object or process is given causal correlation that doesn’t exist. Superstition is the irrational (not arational) attribution of causation and connection to something that doesn’t exist (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superstition ).
I have written about the superstitious nature of safety previously:
Let’s look at some of the grand superstitions of Safety.
The Heinrich Pyramid.
There is no correlation between injury rates and fatalities. There is no ratio or formula that can predict an unsafe event, yet safety texts everywhere are full of the mythical triangles of Bird and Heinrich. Heinrich is taught in most WHS courses as fact when it is a superstition. This feeds the most absurd preoccupation with counting injury rates and events and then attributing correlation. Tim Minchin is one of the best at exposing the notion of such nonsense correlation (http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2mx2l6 )
TRIFR or LTIFR
I had a call last week from a friend whose boss was going into melt down because their TRIFR rate had risen. The alarm and panic was extraordinary in the belief that TRIFR was evidence of safety. I said, ‘ and so if nothing is done and the TRIFR rate drops, what will that be attributed to’? Ah, he said ‘effective safety systems’.
Similarly, the preoccupation with LTIs is a disease of delusion that convinces people that collecting injury data assures safety. Of course, TRIFR and LTIs are all connected to the mythology of Heinrich’s pyramid. Like all religious faith one belief connects and feeds another. Once all the data has been produced each month and once all the attribution has been made, what do you know about safety? Not much.
Greg Smith calls out the Risk Matrix as one of the most dangerous things in the industry of safety (https://vimeo.com/166158437 ). The coloured box juggle has more in common to a Ouija board meeting than anything that actually helps people manage risk. Yet, these silly boxes fill every Safe Work Method Statement and JSA as if there is some correlation between getting a colour down from red to green as signifies some safety reality. Indeed, the games played to get the colour shift down is often often manipulated so that a JSA doesn’t have to be written.
I was visiting building sites all last week and was taken by the number of contractors and subcontractors who pay outsiders to manage their WHS systems. The external company charges a rate to establish systems and then audits their own systems for a fee, what a rort. What this leads to is a mass of systems to justify their own existence all based on fear. This is despite the fact that paperwork doesn’t matter for squat in a court if it has no connection to the real management of risk (https://vimeo.com/162034157 ). When outsiders create paperwork then audit their own paperwork it is very easy to prove in court that people don’t even understand their own systems. How strange that this mythology of paperwork as a protection against risk has grown into such an industry, so much so that one can buy WHS systems from Officeworks (https://www.officeworks.com.au/shop/SearchDisplay?searchTerm=safety+swms&storeId=10151&langId=-1&pageSize=24&beginIndex=0&sType=SimpleSearch&resultCatEntryType=2&showResultsPage=true&searchSource=Q&pageView= ). The purpose of paperwork is not paperwork but rather a record of how systems work.
Tick and Flick.
One of the greatest rituals attributed superstitious value is the Rick and Flick. Tick and Flick is like any religious ritual. Ritual and symbols such a tick and flick are the foundation of all religious superstition. Ritual is mostly about appeasing fear and creating assurance in the face of uncertainty (https://vimeo.com/166935963). Ritual makes something look like something has value and is effective but it just shallow and all for show. No amount of checklists proves that people understand their systems or know how to tackle risk. The collection of checklists is no different than the collection of religious relics but when it gets to court they are show to be of no value whatsoever (https://vimeo.com/163499152 ).
Zero and Transhumanism.
Religious yearning to transcend human fallibility, vulnerability and mortality is the basis of religious faith. Again Tim Minchin is good at demonstrating this (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ET1-_PeExMs&pbjreload=10). The longing for zero is the longing to transcend the confines of fallible mortality and vulnerability. This is why the World Safety Congress places so much emphasis on belief against the realities of science. The strange contradiction is that the more Safety buries itself into STEM the more it denies the foundations of science and enters into the transcendence of religion.
Safety is now in concert with the Transhumanists (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transhumanism ). The Transhumanists like Kerzweil (The Singularity is Near), Bostrom (Human genetic engancements, A Transhumanist perspective) and Naam (More Than Human) believe in The Perfectibility of Man (Passmore, 1970). So, one day all suffering, harm, pain, risk, necessity and disaster will be gone in a perfect world where perfect humans make perfect judgments for perfect outcomes. In this belief and leap of faith technique becomes the new religion in the hate of mortality and despising the challenges of vulnerability. In this Brave New World (Huxley) there can be no learning because everything is under control (including eugenics) and humans transcend themselves.
What Safety and Transhumanism don’t understand is the risk-learning paradox. The more Safety deems mortality and fallibility as pollution and corrupt, the more rituals it will need to create certainty against the denial of uncertainty. What the rituals of safety do is cleanse the defilement of humanity, moral abomination and fallible uncleanness from the workplace. Just believe, one day you will get to zero. A good place to start in understanding the nature of religious ritual is Douglas, (1966) Purity and Danger, An analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo.
The symbol of Reason’s Swiss Cheese is one the most profound myths in safety. The idea that events occur in linear and reductionist progression is the foundation of most incident investigation products on the market. What most of these methods do in investigation is substantiate the undisclosed assumptions (methodology) of the method. The mythology of ‘root cause’ (https://vimeo.com/167228715) drives the semiology of the swiss cheese. Because the symbol makes binary sense then the simplistic logic gets traction from binary safety. Complexity can be rejected because the root cause can always be known and in the end someone must be prosecuted. What a shame the courts don’t work this way in reality.
The Hazard Register.
As part of my travels this last week on half a dozen building sites I came across the collection of thousands of risks and hazards on registers. No-one has ever been able to explain why organisations do this. No-one has ever been able to explain the value of this collection process. None has ever been able to explain how much time is spent collecting hazards on a register and maintaining them. How does the collection of hazards make one aware of how to manage them? How does a list of risks help one adapt to new risks that vary each hour in the process of the workplace? If a risk and hazard register is essential then, the collection of hazards should be a minute by minute process because the collecting of these hazards must be critical in managing them? Of course, the collection of hazards is a religious exercise that gives mystical assurance that one is undertaking a safety task.
What can we do?
The only way to really escape the delusions of religious ritual and associated ineffectiveness is to go back to basics. The truth is, safety needs none of these rituals or myths in order to effectively tackle risk. None are required by the legislation or regulation anyway. Indeed, if less time was spent on these various delusions we would have much more time to actually engage with people to effectively tackle risk.
Good safety should reject religious paraphernalia, drop the bells and whistles and develop an ethic of safety that can only come through a transdisciplinary approach to safety. This means dumping the dominance of STEM in WHS training and text books and striking a balance that includes much more diverse approaches to knowledge and critical thinking in understanding and tackling risk.
This has been my focus for many years in helping organisations not waste time and actually understand and manage culture and do things that help people better understand and tackle risk.