The Dehumanization of Safety

The Mechanistic Worldview and the Dehumanization of Safety

By Dr Rob Long

3d robot construction workerThere should be no great surprise to anyone regarding the number of trade offs we have made by accepting the mechanistic worldview of safety. The narrative in safety over recent history has shifted away from humanizing people to the continued process of dehumanizing people in safety. The champions of dehumanization of safety have been: the regulator, the legal profession, safety associations, political parties, the OFSC, engineering and the many technological-focused groups. Unfortunately, the mechanized worldview remains the dominant worldview in safety. The mechanized worldview (individually and combined) tends to shift the focus off humans in safety to objects in safety, or maintains itself as the only way to manage uncertainty. We certainly know this ourselves, we feel it in the way the systems and its agents treat us. The mythology associated with the mechanistic worldview (and its trade offs) creates the delusion that safety and risk are ‘managed’. In reality nothing is ‘safer’ rather, risk gets shifted, reframed and relocated rather than mitigated. The following table should assist in understanding this process:

Mechanistic Trend Dehumanising Outcome and Trade Off
Excessive systems The more systems are seen as solutions the more powerlessness humans become within that system.Humans respond in a desensitized way through ‘tick and flick’ and diminished ‘thinking’. Then when mistakes are made, the next solution is developed by adding to the system.
Focus on data The accent on data creates the perception of risk as scientific and objective which puts it in conflict with subjectivity of risk and uncertainty. Data is elevated as objective when it is not but rather meaning to the data is attributed.
Focus on engineering The heavy focus on engineering in safety creates a loss of adaptability, creativity, innovation and validation of imagination. Engineering cannot respond to the complete nature of human decision making but is limited by engineering thinking. Sorry to disappoint the engineers but humans cannot be understood as objects or machines.
Focus on technology As safety continues to be preoccupied with the love of ‘technique’ the trade off increases risks of people working alone as human labour is viewed as expensive. The love of ‘technique’ assists the view that human fallibility is a problem.
Behaviourist focus The behaviourist worldview understands people as sum of inputs and outputs. Behaviours becomes confused with culture and observations as policing. Behaviourism becomes confused with social psychology.
Cause and effect thinking The misattribution of cause and effect creates a focus on black and white attribution rather than the diversity of choice under a lack of optimal knowledge. This creates the delusion that decisions are made on the basis of rationally complete knowledge.
Focus on ‘damaging energies’ Under this focus risk and safety perceived as the release of energy rather than the decision making of humans. This approach creates the delusion that decision making has been considered. Once a focus is made the vision filter then it creates ‘safety arrogance’ in ignorance of any other view.
Focus on hazards This is the continued focus on objects-as-safety. This creates the delusion of hazard hunts as effective as if imagination in human decision making is not required. Rather than thinking about the uncertain, unknown and the unexpected, the focus creates the delusion that named hazards diminish risk.
Focus on zero and numerics Safety is reduced to counting and injury data and is attributed a cultural value where no connection between injury data and culture exists. The continued focus on numerics shifts the focus off people and reduces thinking to ‘people as the problem’ and numbers as absolute. This creates a climate of intolerance and blaming fostered by absurd dehumanizing slogans as ‘all incidents are preventable’.
Excessive checklists and audits (against systems) The ‘dumbing down’ of thinking to lists creates a dependency on lists and the (uncreative) creator of those lists. The tool then become the methodology. Thinking outside or beyond the checklist is limited and discouraged. Conversation and listening are disregarded as valuable tools for risk thinking and the object (SWMS, JSEAs) becomes the outcome rather than the object serving as a thinking tool.
Binary oppositionalism Safety is viewed as a ‘black and white’ process, a fundamentalist exercise rather than a process that requires imagination, adaptability and adjustment in judgment. The binary worldview limits thinking so that one can’t think of the ‘grey’ between ‘black and white’ understandings of the world.
Emphasis on forensics, science and disconnectedness As safety pushes more to being dictated by a regulatory and mechanistic focus, people become desensitized to thinking within the safety space. This creates a culture where safety people become hated because they respond in such a dehumanised way to workers. Rather than disown the subjective space safety people should reject the objectivity of safety as attributed not real.


So what can be done about this trend?

1. The first step in reversing this trend is understanding how the mechanistic worldview works and being aware of how acceptance of this worldview feeds its appetite.

2. The second response to the mechanistic worldview is to keep its methods to a minimum. Minimalism gets rid of the mechanistic dynamic and then one’s focus and energies can be devoted to humanising the safety space.

3. The third thing to do is to not accept the mechanistic view without question. For example, the idea that due diligence is some measured mechanistic process one can demonstrate to others. Even in the regulation it is clear that due diligence is a subjective process and has as much scientific, mechanistic properties as ALARP. Zero needs to be challenged, dissonance needs to be presented to those who have accepted the legitimacy of the mechanistic worldview.

4. The fourth action to do is to shift the safety discourse on to a proper understanding of culture rather than confusing culture as systems and behaviour.

5. The fifth action one can take is to name the dehumanising process as it raises its head in meetings and espoused ‘safety speak’. Safety people should be always contesting the trajectory of initiatives rather than contributing to the ongoing mythology created by the mechanistic worldview.

This is only a start, there are many things safety people can do to subvert the toxicity of the mechanistic worldview and the way it dehumanizes the safety space. Make a start today and tackle this trend with some good open questions that challenge this trajectory and what it is doing to us all.

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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