SOCD – Safety Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

SOCD – Safety Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

IMG_0630I read an interesting article on the Safety Differently blog today and it made me think that safety is a disorder for some people. In the discussion The Safety-fication of Everything I couldn’t help think just how sad some things have become in the sector. In the blog by Steven Shorrock it is a shame he doesn’t explore the importance of semiotics and discourse in his discussion. What a shame that safety people in general don’t know that words matter and that semiology shapes belief.

Any study of the semiology of safety reveals that for some, safety is an obsession. It is as if one does a cert 4 in safety and gets a free crusading vaccination at graduation. Then we call ourselves ‘geeks’, ‘nerds’, ‘dork’, ‘spud’, ‘Safety Bill’, ‘Safety Sam’ or whatever as if all this is both clever and balanced when in fact, it endorses the marginalization and differentiation of safety . What the semiology indicates is that safety is obsessed with itself, a narcissistic disorder that blinds perspective and drives a total fixation on self. Just read the blog by Steven and you will realize that safety seeks to command the airspace in everything.

I was with my grandchildren riding bikes a few weeks ago and learning to navigate tracks, holes, bumps and objects when we came across a hole webbed off with star pickets. The webbing had half fallen down, the star pickets were leaning over and the large hole was exposed. It has clearly been neglected for sometime. We stopped, hooked up the webbing a bit and we rode on. We didn’t need to talk about it, report it or obsess with it; we just got on with riding, that was our purpose. Sometimes I hear safety dorks talk and one is convinced that life gets in the way of safety. I’m with Rob Sams I’m just not into obsessive safety ( ), living and engaging with people is far more important.

It’s worth recalling the story when I presented my risk and safety maturity matrix ( to a crowd and was approached by a dork later who told me the model had no hand rail ( see A Bloody Handrail), that’s SOCD. Obsessive compulsion is a disorder that interferes with living and it involves a pre-occupation with something that leads to repeated checking. The signs of OCD are: a fixation on order, counting, safety checking, religious issues ( Sounds much like SOCD to me. SOCD is a disorder like OCD when it becomes absolute and all controlling. It is characterized by intrusions and compulsions that cannot be resisted such as wanting to control the behaviour of others. It is manifest in rituals and paranoia and interferes in relationships with others ( The difficulty with escaping OCD is the need to ‘let go’, ‘unlearn’ and relinquish sunk cost, for many the dissonance required is too costly and so the comfort of the obsession is held on to.

I had a conversation with a safety manager yesterday who was running a ‘target zero’ program and he wanted to ‘move on’ to use some of my material. I suggested that the language of his program would have to be dropped if he wanted to move on. He replied, ‘it’s just a target, a few words’. ‘Yes’, I said, ‘but the language is about absolutes, priming failure in fallible people’. He replied, ‘but it’s not an absolute, it’s just a target’. He just couldn’t see that the mode of communication (semiotics and discourse) was part of the problem. Absolute words like ‘zero’ by nature, must ‘prime’ obsession and perfectionism. Perfectionism too is a mental health disorder ( ), a handy partner for SOCD. In the end we just started going in circles and so I stopped, like many safety people, they have no training in how language and discourse shapes the unconscious. So, if he didn’t think ‘target zero’ was an absolute, why did he use such language? Language for such people has nom meaning, he might as well call the program ‘target nonsense’. As usual, I got the same old tired binary ‘how many people do you want to kill question’ and after challenging him back with other binary arguments and his love of terrorism, we decided to suspend the discussion. The only way to escape the cognitive dissonance of SOCD is through the pain of ‘letting go’ and ‘unlearning’. For many, the cost is too great.

One demonstration of SOCD is observing if another can ‘let go’ and learn, unfortunately, the SOCD disorder simply invents a new version of itself in denial eg. Safety II. The obsession doesn’t diminish, SOCD just moves to a new label. In the cognitive dissonance loop (see below) I introduced in Risk Makes Sense, this means that the top loop, that reinforces predictions becomes an obsession. The re-framing of belief (and associated belonging and attachment) is too painful so the obsession intensifies. The power of the dissonance coupled with confirmation bias, makes for all the dynamics of SOCD and safety fundamentalism. All endorsed by the absolutes of zero.

The Cognitive Dissonance Loop (p. 101 Risk Makes Sense)


So back to Shorrock’s blog, if the ‘the safety-fication of everything’ dynamic is already here, how does one escape it? Why is it not identified as a ‘disorder’? What are our training institutions and associations doing to respond to the disorder, or do they help create it? How is SOCD promoted in safety texts? Why is there so little humanization in safety texts? Can we speak to other people and simply not use the word ‘safety’ or add the word ‘safety’ to our discourse? If one is challenged by this proposition, is that an indication of SOCD?

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
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.

Do you have any thoughts? Please share them below