Speaking Semiotic Language to Safety
Semiotics is a language all of its own, no different than a language like Mandarin or Music, and needing translation. Semiotics embodies a visual language that transcends the logic and mechanics of other languages because it uses representations like visual metaphors to convey a way of knowing that resists control. All images precede cognition.
Semiotics is a discipline of study and theory of knowing which Safety doesn’t engage, even though it knows nothing about it, it thinks it can use such language without the any expertise in knowing it. It’s no different than going to China and speaking gobbledygook expecting understanding and even if you learn a few words don’t understand the very grammar of the language. The grammar of semiotics is as complex as any other language and within it there are many sub-disciplines all with their own sub-language and way of knowing. You can see a map of the discipline of Semiotics at Figure 1. The Discipline of Semiotics.
Figure 1. The Discipline of Semiotics
The following ‘map’ helps understand where the discipline of semiotics fits within the Social Sciences at Figure 2. Mapping Semiotics to Other Disciplines.
Figure 2. Mapping Semiotics to Other Disciplines.
So, when we think of the Semiosphere (Lotman) we think of every visual and semiotic representation in Natural life, Artificial Life and Supernatural Life. The highest grossing movies of all time are religious semiotic representations of myths/symbols. See Figure 3. Mapping the Semiosphere.
Figure 3. Mapping the Semiosphere.
All of this is unknown to Safety, consumed by engineering, behaviourism and scientism. And without any interest in Transdisciplinary learning it continues to show how unprofessional it is. What is worse, Safety brings its engineering lens to graphics, visuals and semiosis as if this is how semiotics can be understood. It’s like trying to use a slide rule to understand poetry or music. You can’t understand music through a paradigm of science or engineering, music has its own language that connects to the heart and soul. Similarly, understanding images, graphics, semiotics and iconography have their own grammar.
The domain of Semiotics is the unconscious. Symbology, signs, semiosis and iconography are pre-cognitive and way beyond rational cognition. Semiotics operates in the non-rational (aRational) space and cannot be understood rationally. Just look at all that can be known in the social sciences, and all of it is in the domain of non-measureable knowing. Unfortunately, Safety with its psychosis on measurement has no idea what to do with images or signs. Indeed, it is clear that Safety thinks that the use of signs and symbols, images and icons are somehow objective. Nothing is more fearful to Safety than subjectivity so, it wishes it away.
So, just observe what safety does when it uses symbols, images and semiotics:
- It anchors to PPE as its core identity, stating clearly the primacy of objects over persons,
- The global icon of zero tells us that numerics and perfectionism are central to the identity of the industry (not a profession).
- Then we get a common array of symbols that various groups grab and most often the message (McLuhan) (https://safetyrisk.net/the-medium-is-the-message/ ) conveys its opposite, for example:
- A stiletto – we love harming women (https://safetyrisk.net/the-wisdom-of-the-beguines-for-safety/ ),
- Fist on a wall – aggression and harm,
- Hazardman – safety people are heroes (https://safetyrisk.net/hazardman-wont-save-you/ )
- Mums for safety – paternalism (https://safetyrisk.net/dumbs-for-safety/ ),
- Meerkats – aggressive anti-community message (https://safetyrisk.net/meerkat-mythology-in-safety/ ),
- Pickles – safety is a condiment (https://www.worksafe.govt.nz/managing-health-and-safety/managing-risks/pickled/ ),
- Dumb ways to die – suicide is stupid (https://safetyrisk.net/dumb-ways-to-die-doesnt-work/ ),
- Sexy Sophie – sexualising women as objects anchored to safety work (https://safetyrisk.net/safety-isnt-sexy-and-it-shouldnt-be/ ).
And, there is plenty more. Just look at all this rubbish and ask the key question, how professional is safety? The word ‘professional’ is a meaningless adjective if it is not anchored to intelligent practice.
What Safety doesn’t want to know is that all of this gives primacy to the image not text. Most of the time the semiotics of Safety conveys (unconsciously) its opposite. No wonder most messaging in safety fails. No wonder Safety is best at producing more of the same, sometimes under the language of ‘different’ (https://safetyrisk.net/the-safety-and-new-view-debate/ ) when it is no different. Always projecting solutions in systems, engineering and brutalism.
In my book Envisioning Risk, Seeing, Vision and Meaning in Risk (https://www.humandymensions.com/product/envisioning-risk-seeing-vision-and-meaning-in-risk/ ) I present an array of ways in understanding semiotics and visionary messaging that works (https://www.humandymensions.com/product/it-works-a-new-approach-to-risk-and-safety/ ). Part of that discussion explores the power of graffiti and the work of Banksy (pp.162 ff). So often vision is found in non-compliance, political and ethical protest by risk takers who are not afraid to present a view that criticizes orthodoxy. Certainly, graffiti artists know how to speak truth to power so that one image can say a thousand words.
Recently I saw this (Figure 4. Zero Graffiti) commissioned as a message to Zero Harm to say it was a broken useless ideology.
Figure 4. Zero Graffiti
As long as Safety remains it its cocoon, closed to what it doesn’t know, closed to other disciplines, closed to non-measurement, closed the critical thinking, closed to poetics, closed to discourse analysis, closed to social being and closed to risk, it will never become professional.
If you want to understand semiotics, SPOR has been delivering programs in this for 20 years (https://cllr.com.au/product/semiotics-and-the-social-psychology-of-risk-unit-3-overseas-online-elearning/ ). It’s always been available for those who want to learn. How fascinating that Safety seeks blissful ignorance, how professional.
Perhaps you might like to study a bit:
Then again, why not just keep to the discourse of dumb because criticism is toxicity. Yes, let’s keep doing more of the same and keep to mono-disciplinarily ignorance that brands everything it doesn’t know as anti-safety. How professional.
Brian Edwin Darlington says
As always another great Blog, making for good reading. I wonder how many readers picked up that the graffiti next to the Zero Harm Graffiti is one on peace for Ukraine and in the colours of their flag. One only has to ask how is it ever possible to achieve Zero.
As you mention, semiotics is key to what we should be doing as leaders and in risk and safety and in addition it is such an interesting subject to read and learn more about, and this begs the question why people in risk and safety are not learning more about it. Sad !!
Rob Long says
Hey Brian, it’s just grafitti right? It has no significance, right?
Rob Long says
Last piece by Banksy sold for $25 mill. I’m so glad people walk by this everyday telling them how stupid, unprofessional and brutal the safety industry is. The reality is, the average worker already knows it but the associations and ceos do not, neither do they know what to do because they are locked into binary ideology.
Crista Vesel says
Semiotics make up most of our communication and it is amazing how little organizations know or care about it. I looked up the “Pickled!” game and had a lot of sad laughs… How are pickled vegetables supposed to engage our right brain perspective of empathy, relationship, understanding, and inquiry? The game creators suggest that you should:
-Add it to your induction for new starters, contractors or site visitors.
-Add it to health and safety training sessions.
-Get your team to play a few games at your next health and safety briefing.
-Offer it to staff with low-literacy levels or English as a Second Language as an easier way to learn about health and safety.
It is amazing that they think workers would want to gather around this game and that it would inspire true dialogue. The last point is truly ridiculous – that non-English speakers can learn from this game. If an accident happens, will they run around looking for ‘the right pickle’?
Thanks for sharing, Rob! I may use this as an exercise in my language class.
Rob Long says
Christa, Safety is the industry that just keeps on giving. For an industry so ignorant about linguistics, semiotics, poetics and so much more, it so proudly parades its ignorance for all to see and then stand up and claim the word ‘professional’.
The trouble is things like this pickle campaign come from a regulator as ‘innovative’. ONce again safety stating what it is by what it is not!