Sticks and Stones and the Nonsense of Zero Harm

Sticks and Stones and the Nonsense of Zero Harm

imageWhen we were kids we were taught the rhyme ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sticks_and_Stones ). This mantra is such a silly childish semiotic that totally ignores the nature of how language affects the mind. The truth is, words do matter. What we say and how we say it can be so harmful. (see further: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/words-can-change-your-brain, Fairhurst ‘The Power of Framing’ or, Flynn, Slovic & Kunreuther ‘Risk, Media and Stigma’)

We know how harmful bullying can be. We also know that bullying and harassment in the workplace leads to suicide and significant psychological harm. We know this is so based on the Alec Meikle suicide and Downer EDI case (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-01-30/inquest-into-the-suicide-of-a-teenage-apprentice-ends/6057712 ).

I wonder if any tier one organisations who espouses zero harm record the number of people bullied in their organization? I wonder if they even consider the relationship between absenteeism and bullying? I wonder if psychological harm is even a blip on their zero harm radar? I bet no TRIFR or LTI rate records bullying! See how absurd zero harm is.

The truth is, the language of zero harm and counting TRIFR and LTIs creates a focus on physical harm. Safety counts only what it sees. Under the rubric of zero harm, cuts and breaks become privileged information and desired knowledge, whereas hidden and unseen harm is not considered harm. The delusion of zero is only kept alive by this crazy idea that safety is achieved by the absence of harm. So companies freak out over any LTI but let hundreds of days of absenteeism slip under the radar. Beautiful, this is the zero harm delusion.

A recent survey in building and construction (http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/seven-in-10-young-workers-bullied-harassed-in-canberra-unions-act-20170514-gw4tbm.html) indicated that young people are bullied on site at an alarming rate. The research shows the level and power of harm projected by such bullying. For example, a young person being called ‘retard’ is a very powerful metaphor and semiotic. Metaphors are perhaps the most powerful of semiotics when it comes to bullying. Ricoeur calls metaphor a ‘heuristic of thought’ (‘The Rule of Metaphor’). A heuristic is psychological ‘rule of thumb’ that substitutes for a lengthy process or discourse. There it is, just one word-metaphor can be so powerful because it sums up a mind picture of all that is attached to it.

It is not surprising that Safety doesn’t really get the social psychological nature of bullying. When Safety accepts such incongruent metaphors as ‘Resilience Engineering’ as normal, we can see the extent of the problem. The fact that Safety is so immersed in the mechanistic worldview is also a critical factor in why bullying runs under the radar. With a WHS curriculum so focused on objects and an SIA body of knowledge so focused on systems and hazards, is it any wonder that bullying receives no mention as a social-psychological problem.

The article cited above also states: ‘ACT work safety commissioner Greg Jones said harsher penalties did not always lead to compliance’. How true. Greg Smith has written so eloquently on this (https://www.safetyrisk.net/450000-is-this-what-we-want-from-prosecutions/ ). Penalties are so ineffective because bullying is a cultural problem and silly dumb down Safety defines culture as ‘what we do around here’. So again, with such a definition one can only focus on behaviours and this leads to a total ignorance of the power of symbols, artefacts and semiotics as cultural factors. Poor old Safety, still focused on behaviourism and measurement whilst an epidemic of bullying runs under the radar. Of course, the ideology of behaviourism also promotes the nonsense that penalties and punishment drive behaviour. Our gaols are full of examples that kill off such mythology. Research into the psychology of goals and motivation show quite clearly that people are not the sum of inputs and outputs (https://www.safetyrisk.net/understanding-safety-goals/ ).

So what can be done to invoke some change? First, organisations need to take language and semiotics seriously, which means they need to understand the critical issues. Trouble is, there is no training in the orthodox safety world on semiotics. Second, organisations need to dump nonsense language like ‘zero harm’ and start to speak a different language that has a holistic focus. Safety will never see bullying as a social-psychological problem when it is blind to its own ‘collective unconscious’. Third, curriculum reform is needed to help the industry move away from a ‘dumb down’ focus on objects and hazards to better focus on people as subjects (not as a sub-set of a system). When safety begins to understand itself as a ‘helping’ activity rather than a surveillance activity, then the rate of bullying may start to be addressed.

There are a host of other actions Safety can take to address the scourge of bullying but unless bullying is understood as a social-psychological problem, nothing much will change.

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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