Semiotics and Safety

Semiotics and Safety

Disaster in business negative graphI read with interest a conference proposed for November 2014 entitled ‘Beyond Zero Harm, Human Factors Safety’. The subtitle of the conference is ‘Humanising impacts in safety operations to reengineer safety approach for enhanced productivity and business profitability’. Oh dear. Whilst I am sure such people as John Green will promote some serious thinking about risk and safety, the conference title is nothing short of mindless gobbledygook language. Why does safety continue to speak such nonsense? Why must safety be ‘anchored’ to the nonsense of zero? Why must safety be ‘framed’ by numerics?

Safety seems to have no idea of semiotics (the philosophy of language) and how meaning is constructed in the unconscious. Safety continues to remain blind to how language influences and ‘primes’ the unconscious and how the unconscious enacts such priming. Why does safety not know that everything (including language and symbols) have significance and influence? Why doesn’t safety take seriously the psychological dynamics of framing, priming and anchoring?

Why must safety continually ‘prime’ the safety airspace with such nonsense ideology as zero harm? How does something go ‘beyond zero’? If ‘absolute zero’ (Zero Kelvin −273.15 °C) in science is impossible, why does safety talk in such absolutist nonsense language? How can an ideology fixed on numerics and metrics ‘primed’ by zero, possibly become ‘humanising? If zero is also infinity, does that mean safety wants infinite injury? How can talk of something ‘beyond’ zero make sense? Why does the safety think that the concept of engineering or re-engineering (manufactured, controlled) is somehow a human concept? How can one humanize anything if engineering language is used to explain the method of humanizing? How do the goals of ‘enhanced productivity’ and ‘business profitability’ drive humanized safety?

Why does safety continue to speak all this nonsensical language as if words don’t matter, as if the priming of language doesn’t drive discourse and values? Why can so few see that zero is not just a negative word but rather a negative ideology? All of these questions emerge simply from the promotional material for this conference.

I find it nothing short of entertaining that people use the language of ‘zero harm’ and the notion of being human in the same sentence. How can anything have a human trajectory if it is fixated on a numeric symbol? Despite the spin of ‘innovation’ in the promotional material, can someone please explain how framing and anchoring on zero is innovative? What is new? What is different when the discourse is the same? Just because the ‘spin’ is about difference and innovation doesn’t mean anything is innovative? There is so much talk about extending beyond the confines of ‘calculative safety’ but so few actually providing a pathway for how to do it.

I have spent the past few weeks helping a large company in Europe take this step, from Calculative to Proactive Safety (but still such a long way from Generative Safety). Such a demanding step when so much of what safety promotes is counting, data, metrics and engineering. At one stage of my visit I had the chance to be ‘counselled’ by a senior executive who tried to control me by chatting to me about the importance of trust in stepping from Calculative to Proactive. Even in his counsel to free me to speak in my convictions he sought to control me through calculative thinking. It is early days yet for this company and there is still some way to go but the understanding that this ‘leap of faith’ is necessary is a driving force. Many fall back in to old Calculative habits easily but at least they are trying. Many others are safe and secure in their Calculative cocoon. If the safety wants to be innovative then try stop talking about zero, stop ‘framing’ safety discourse by ‘anchoring’ to zero, now that might be innovative. Nothing anchored to zero can be innovative.

The first step to being innovative in safety is to change language, the core driver of culture. We have to stop speaking the language of ‘Calculative’ ideology. Stop talking about numerics, metrics, zero and data. Even ‘framing’ a conference as ‘beyond zero’ ‘anchors’ everyone’s consciousness on zero. Just let go of it, it is nonsense language. Safety will be only free to think when it extracts itself from the binary logic attached to zero. How on earth can one humanise anything when the language that fills the safety space dehumanizes human consciousness by focusing on numeric? What is the point of talking ‘human factors’ when humans are understood as only parts (factor) in a system? So much of what is being peddled as ‘new’, ‘innovative’ an ‘different’ is just a variation on systems thinking.

Some months ago I introduced readers to my Risk and Safety Maturity Matrix ( A model I developed to illustrate how to go to the next level in safety. The model involves a range of steps overlaid on Hudson’s 5 types of safety culture (on the left of the diagram).

The first 5 (red) steps in safety culture development are essentially mechanistic. These are the red steps that focus on ‘things’ and ‘controls’. An object-focused model of safety with the pinnacle of maturity stuck on systems, will always remain ‘Calculative’. It is crazy to suppose that one is ‘world class’ or a HRO simply by becoming more vigilant about systems. When one gets the 5 foundational red steps, it doesn’t make sense to keep marking time on the 5th step and announce that one has ‘arrived’ in safety.

The next steps in safety involve movement to a social paradigm of safety, this is a paradigm that let’s go of dependence on systems and numerics and trusts humans to manage their own safety. This is a step that stops controlling others and starts working with others in relationship and mutual influence. It seems strange that with so much innovation in social space and media that poor old safety clutches on to numbers and control. Humans are essentially social beings, so why all this talk of engineering and metrics?

Figure 1. The Human Dymensions Risk and Safety Maturity Matrix


The key to opening the door to a new approach to safety is to step up from behavioural and cognitive understandings of risk to social psychological understandings of risk. Social psychology is all about the way social arrangements affect decision making. I have previously listed some readings that will help in making this step ( ).

The names in the steps (Mind, Walk, Seek, Think, Risk etc) are names of programs Human Dymensions delivers to help organisations step up and away from Calculative ideology to Proactive and Generative cultures in safety..

Social psychology knows that we don’t have much ‘control’ of our decisions and that many of our decisions are conditioned by social arrangements and social context. It is a delusion to think that one ‘chooses’ safety, the idea that human will has power over all our social variables is ludicrous. Much of our decision making is shaped in our unconscious and influenced by social context. Hence the danger of metric and numeric (Calculative) based ideology. Research by Libet (cited in Norretranders ‘The User Illusion’) shows that our conscious rationalisations are much slower than our unconscious decision making.

Safety needs to grapple with the fact that much of human decision making is undertaken in a state of ‘not thinking’, in automaticity. Indeed, most organisations drive for efficiency and automaticity, the faster we make our habits the less we think. Strange that safety doesn’t take such a step to being proactive and Generative because the reasoning of ‘I wasn’t thinking’ is the most common language that surfaces in incident investigations.

Those who want to lead in safety shouldn’t be framing the safety space on numerics and metrics but rather should be promoting conferences on human learning, decision making, motivation, perception and social influences. This is where the innovation is situated and should be anchored.

Until the safety world decides to get off the nonsense language of zero and zero discourse it will never stop being calculative and step up to a humanizing discourse. Until safety takes seriously the power of semiotics and the study of semiology, it will remain calculative and continue to speak Calculative gobbledygook.

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.

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