The Fear of Freedom in Safety

The Fear of Freedom in Safety

imageFor some reason people have recently become most interested in the Two Day Workshop on Due Diligence run by myself and Greg Smith ( The next Due Diligence Workshop is on 20,21 February (

In feedback on the Workshop it became clear that people liked the idea of reducing petty pointless safety bureaucracy that didn’t have anything to do with safety but were afraid to do so. The feedback was clear: ‘the government wants it’ or ‘clients want it’ so, there is nothing we can do about it. Even when there was some freedom from government and client demand, people were still afraid to let go of the totems to which they had become religiously addicted. Safety is indeed in the land of Norom ( ).

Let’s just all fall in line with the nonsense conga line and like lemmings perform the Heinrich Dance forever and a day. So lets keep counting statistics that mean nothing, TRIFR rates that create pettiness and reporting and writing endless risk assessments, hazard records and JSAs that contribute nothing to tackling risk. As one person in the workshop put it: ‘its pointless, everyone expects this crap’. Yet, Greg demonstrates so clearly in his new book Paper Safe ( that most of what we ‘count’ as safety is not much more than theatre performance that provides no legal protection when things go wrong.

Maybe change is not possible, in an industry that profoundly mis-educates itself, that deifies mechanics and counting, we could just give up and be safety lemmings. With no vision forthcoming from safety peak bodies immersed in territory/fortress protection and endorsing the already closed STEM WHS curriculum ( and zero, there seems little hope.

However, I received an email last night from a GM of safety in an International tier one organisation that is getting rid of zero. A bold move, equivalent to removing any religious object from a church. It’s so easy to dump more refuse in the safety temple but so hard to take something away.

Taking away zero is the symbolic start to a new approach to people and risk. If you want to learn about myths and cults, just suggest it in your organisation and listen to the language in response – fear and trembling.

Sometimes the best way to start a change is to take away models, change language and replace symbols. These are often your ‘tipping point’.

Eric Fromm is one of the founding members of the Frankfurt School and a critical read for anyone interested in risk and safety. One of his best books is The Fear of Freedom ( Situated in the height of Nazi Germany Fromm discusses Negative Freedom (Freedom from) and Positive Freedom (freedom to). Fromm argued that one without the other was not helpful. One can know what one needs to be free from but must also have a strategy of how to move forward and what to do next. Anyone who has been liberated from an addiction knows about ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’.

The creative, imaginative actions of Hope need to have an avenue on which to travel. In the Due Diligence Workshop Greg Smith facilitates the ‘freedom from’ and I facilitate the ‘freedom to’. The Social Psychology of Risk provides new ways and tools ( of tackling risk once one has dropped much of the myths to which Safety has become cultically addicted.

Sometimes the first moves are simply to change models, symbols and language. It is amazing what happens when those dumb symbols of cones, pyramids, matrices, boots, hard hats, gloves and glasses are substituted for humanising symbols.

In another organisation I work with they have just removed the crazy Life Saving Rules and Cardinal Rules nonsense and replaced it with ‘Critical Conversations in Risk’. Again a bold move for a religion that attributes saving effectiveness to propaganda that has no influence on behaviour. Ah, we now police 10 Life Saving Rules and have put up posters everywhere – everyone is safe.

Another company I work with has just removed the coloured matrix and bow tie from their risk assessments, again a bold move. Sometimes taking away that religious icon breaks dependencies and begins that necessary conversation needed towards humanising risk your workplace. None of this is revolutionary. There is nothing to be afraid of. Most of what has been brought into safety and deified has no meaning. Most of what we currently do in safety is not connected to effectively tackling risk.

Soon it will be time for a New Years resolution. If you want to become diligent in safety what will be your ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’?

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.

22 Replies to “The Fear of Freedom in Safety”

  1. Perhaps we should avoid as many “absolutes” as possible in our language. “Zero” and “FREEDOM” are two “outcome” words that really aren’t possible with imperfect humans….Thoughts? We can no more achieve Zero than we can achieve Freedom from Fear…actually nor should we. Fear is a good thing! 😉 Zero not so much when we realize the lies we must tell ourselves to achieve it.
    Alan D. Quilley CRSP

  2. Thanks for sharing that Rob. I am surrounded by the Zero harm/All incidents are preventable/Nobody goes home hurt etc. absolutes that have a discourse of blame and punishment. I have learned to be subversive in the way I present and discuss lagging indicators and it is amazing the difference it makes. Just today I had to present at one of our Fiscal Year kickoffs and part of that is reviewing the injuries from the previous year. I spent the time talking about how those incident do not define those people anymore than your son or daughter coming home from school with a 7 out of 10 on a spelling test defined them as a average student. They real key is those incidents are taken as opportunities for learning because if there is no balance with the positive then those lag indicators just become vehicles for punishment vs a tool for development,
    It is nice to hear there are others who are understanding discourse and trajectory and taking steps toward safety maturity.

    1. Dyno, the anxiety people suffer when I suggest getting rid of a hazard register or matrix is scary. You would think I was in a Baptist church suggesting we throw out the bible. However, when we get rid of these silly useless models and props we get liberated to engage with people and really converse about risk.

  3. Alan, I don’t understand freedom as an absolute. Neither would I compare either words, freedom is always qualified and limited by life’s determinism. Just as all choice is never a free choice. Safety is not a choice we make freely.
    Similarly freedom can be both a feeling and a process, zero cannot. The fear of freedom is not the fear of an absolute but the fear of a process, a question and an orientation more than a numeric destination. Freedom is relative, zero is not.
    So as a fallible human I can feel a sense of freedom riding a bike, playing guitar or dancing but the idea of freedom is not a perfect, neither absolute as zero. There is no ‘feeling’ of zero and no partial experience of zero. Zero is an absolute as infinity, freedom is experienced relative to fallibility and context.

  4. Sorry Rob – Respectfully I don’t agree. You’re changing the word’s meaning and frankly being guilty of the same flaws the the Zero Crowd are. Freedom by definition is an absolute. If you are FREE of something (like fear) it means there is NONE = Zero. The Zero Crowd wiggle around Zero being a “feeling of safe.” Sorry Rob you’re on the wrong side of this one. 🙂 Free doesn’t mean “a little bit.” Freely and Freedom are two different concepts. If I make a choice freely I’m doing that without influence…that just doesn’t happen ever. Let’s be consistent with our disdain for absolutes. We both have a goal to remove Zero from Safety…let’s do the same for Free from” …since we are never in that situation. Some definitions of Safe include “Freedom from all danger.” When in the world does THAT happen? We’re certainly never FREE from Fear – EVER! 🙂

  5. My thoughts – All language has a discourse and trajectory. The discourse of zero in health and safety is one of blame and punishment. If that is the trajectory that one thinks will best tackle risk for their organization, who am I to argue? Attempting to paint Rob use and context of the word “freedom” in the same light? No offense sir, but is not self evident one is anti-learning and objectifies people while the other promotes a world view of care and humanity? Rob can certainly respond quite capably to this and I am by no means anywhere close to his level in terms of understanding Social Psychology of Risk, but I’ve had enough training and real day to day experience to know that espousing ideas that are literally characterized by the DSM-5 as very problematic (perfectionism) is not the same as “freedom from fear” Sir, if you worked day in and day out in these multi-billion dollar refineries as I do every day, you would see and hear first hand how the fear created by zero leads to under reporting, mental stress, loss of sleep, loss of focus on what they are doing as everyone is looking over their shoulder to see if the “safety police” is watching. THAT is the boots on the ground reality of zero harm. Of course injury rates are down…people scared sh*tless to say anything! I personally received a speeding violation for going 25 in a 15 in the plant. I was not purposely trying to speed, I just got turned around in this huge plant and the last speed limit sign I saw was 30 mpg, so I thought I was fine. In 5 years out there I have never, ever, ever been cited for anything because I practice the healthy level of paranoia every else does to make sure we don’t get written up. Despite asking for some level of understanding and forgiveness based on my record and not seeing a sign that indicated it was 15 mph and not 30 mph, I was written up, banned from the site for 3 days and had to take 5 hours of “training” on how to be safe. Yeah, you think “fear” is good? I would invite you to go buy a pair of safety toe shoes, some safety glasses, a hard hat and the heavy fire resistant clothes we have to wear every day (hot or cold weather) and just come out to this MAJOR company (you definitely know who they are) and just have walk about and chat with a few of the guys in the field. If you still think fear is a good thing after that I can only surmise you must work in an executive position that is so alienated and unaffected by the rules and regulations that those that sit in Air conditioning buildings sit around all day and come up with or maybe you are trolling all of us by just writing something so blatantly off the mark. Either way, I will say I appreciate the opportunity to read alternate view points on this blog now and again. It always helps verify what what I have learned from the Social Psychology of Risk.

  6. Rob
    The “Freedom to agree or disagree” is as different from the “freedom from fear” and a Zero Injury Goal vs a Temperature on a Thermometer. Sorry you’re using words of absolute… it’s not YOUR definition or mine…but the common one that is important in communication. We don’t have the ability to make up definitions (like the Zero Crowd have…to them Zero is a GOAL and not REAL). My favorite quote these days is from Neil deGrasse Tyson “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” One could say that about the use of English…words have definitions. We can look them up. We need to use those definitions if we’re to communicate clearly. The concept of “Freedom from Fear” is as impossible as “Zero Injuries” meaning a workplace is safe.

  7. Dear Dyno,

    I suspect it is RDS in Rotterdam. I worked at Stanlow for over ten years, which was recently sold to Essar.
    I can still recall the Shell Blue Book and its bureaucratic Shell Method Series. SMS 001 was colloquially referred to as bullshit.
    It was pure militaristic and my ID# was 191830. It is undoubtedly why I detest any form of totalitarian control with rules, regulations and procedures.
    Rules and models destroy genius and art – William Hazlitt.

  8. So “Freedom from” means “a right to act in the way you think you should?” …LOL I have the option to choose FEAR as stated in the article? LOL Made me smile Rob, made me smile! The article CLEARLY suggest that FREE from Fear is the desire… so Free is not the absence of? You have to know you’ve just made my day with your freedom to disagree. LOL 🙂

  9. Dyno, the fear that you speak about is normalised as a necessity of zero ideology. The language and discourse of freedom is of an entirely different archetype. Similarly, the myths/symbols associated are completely different. Ellul is essential reading on a hermeneutic of freedom and ethics. Of course the unethical discourse of zero is evident in all you witness and experience. One trajectory dehumanises, the other humanises.

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