The Mechanistic Worldview and the Dehumanisation of Risk

The Mechanistic Worldview and the Dehumanisation of Risk

fallibleIt should be no great surprise to anyone that a huge number of trade-offs have been made by accepting the mechanistic worldview of risk. The narrative in risk over recent history has shifted away from humanising people to that of dehumanising them.

The champions of dehumanisation have been many: the regulator, the legal profession, risk and safety associations, political parties, the OFSC, engineering and the many technologically focused groups within the safety industry. The mechanised worldview is the dominant ideology in risk, security and safety. This worldview (individually and combined) tends to shift the focus from humans to objects, maintaining that this is the only way to manage risk and uncertainty.

We certainly know this ourselves; we feel it in the way the system and its agents, treat us. The mythology associated with the mechanistic worldview (and its trade-offs) creates the delusion that safety, security and risk are being ‘controlled’. In reality, nothing is safer, and no risk is mitigated. Rather, risk gets shifted, reframed and relocated. Often this shifting sends the risk to an area where data is not counted. In other words, it goes underground.

The following table should assist in understanding the mechanisation process.

Mechanistic Trend Dehumanising Outcome and Trade-Off
Excessive systems The more systems are seen as solutions, the more powerless humans become within those systems. Humans respond in a desensitised 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, putting it into conflict with subjectivity of risk and uncertainty. Data is elevated as objective when it is not, but rather, meaning is attributed to the data.
Focus on engineering The heavy focus on engineering in safety leads to a loss of adaptability, creativity, innovation and validation of imagination. Engineering cannot respond to the complete nature
of human decision-making; it 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, and human labour is viewed as costly, the trade-off increases the risk of people working alone. The love of technique assists the view that human fallibility is a problem.
Behaviourist focus The behaviourist worldview understands people as the sum of inputs and outputs. Behaviour becomes confused with culture, and policing with observation. Behaviourism itself 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. There is perhaps no more idiotic saying in the safety industry than ‘safety is a choice you make’. Such silly language deems all fatalities suicide. The Danny Cheney case is a classic example.
Focus on ‘damaging energies’ Under this focus, risk and safety are perceived as the release of energy rather than a human decision-making. This approach creates the delusion that decision-making has been considered. Once a focus is made the vision filter, 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 that hazard hunts are effective, as though imagination in human decision-making is not required. Rather than thinking about the uncertain, the unknown and the unexpected, this 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 such connection exists. The continued focus on numerics shifts the attention from people and reduces thinking to ‘people as the problem’ and numbers as absolute. This creates a climate of intolerance and blaming fostered by absurd dehumanising slogans such as ‘all incidents are preventable’.
Excessive checklists and audits (against systems) The dumbing down of thinking to lists creates a dependency on both the lists and their (uncreative) creator. The tool then becomes 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 serving as a thinking tool.
Binary oppositionalism Safety is viewed as a black-and-white process, a fundamentalist exercise rather than a process requiring imagination, adaptability and adjustment in judgment. The binary worldview limits thinking so that one can’t think of the grey between the black-and-white understandings of the world.
Emphasis on forensics, science and disconnected-ness 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 and not real.

So what can be done about this? Here are five steps as a starting point in reversing the trend:

  1. Understand how the mechanistic worldview works and how acceptance of this worldview feeds its appetite.
  2. 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. Don’t accept the mechanistic view without question. Take, for example, the idea that due diligence is a measured mechanistic process that one can demonstrate to others. Even in the regulation it is clear that due diligence is a subjective process with as many scientific, mechanistic properties as ALARP. Zero needs to be challenged, and dissonance needs to be presented to those who have accepted the legitimacy of the mechanistic worldview.

  4. Shift the safety discourse to a proper understanding of culture rather than confusing culture with systems and behaviour.

  5. Name the dehumanising process as it raises its head in meetings and in 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 beginning. There are many things people in safety can do to subvert the toxicity of this mechanistic worldview and the way it dehumanises 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
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.

4 Replies to “The Mechanistic Worldview and the Dehumanisation of Risk”

  1. Dear Rob, the challenge is massive as we, I say this as I agree with you, are set against 200 or more years of what has been accepted as true and demonstrated as efficient in exerting control. It starts in school on the traditional model where batches are moved through a process of “education” where what is learnt is that to succeed we must quickly conform to giving back to the “teacher” the right answer which means the one that is expected not necessarily the one that matches the truth. We are then rewarded by grades which are associated with qualifications to give a quick reference for entry into the world of work. The above rests on science which was conformist to the world view of a perfect mechanical universe that could be studied and understood. This was fine, Newton was as right as possible and effect followed cause until the 20th century when Einstein, Plank, Heisberg and Shewhart disrupted the validity. The first three names are probably well known the fourth possibly less so but in his work on variation he provided a means for understanding the behaviour of processes and importantly a means to learn what they would do, with a chance of being wrong into the future. Instead of working on people as components in a machine as per Taylor Shewhart led the way for Deming to demonstrate the futility of interfering and controlling behaviour of people in a system in order to improve the quality of work done within it. Once the process is stable the only way to improve is to understand the sources of inherent or common cause variation that are in the system and work to improve them using knowledge gained that is the context of that operation. This undermines the import of a best way gained from outside or one best way designed by enlightened and educated managers high in the hierarchy for the stupid, soldiering worker to follow. Knowledge is power but what gets protected is that this power means the higher the authority the more right their knowledge must be, to protect that authority the importance of quality of knowledge diminishes compared to protecting the association of right knowledge from right position. New knowledge disrupts this and the situation is challenged if knowledge must be learnt related to context not in accordance with doctrine and dogma. De-humanising leads to disengagement, treat people as a resource, a hired pair of hands for a set period of hours and no wonder they leave their brains at home. Joy in work is a critical way to change this but is discordant with efficiency over effectiveness. Good news is there is an alternative to working harder at making the wrong things more right bad news it is not what the hacks are selling so they will shrilly challenge it to maintain an orthodoxy. Best practice does not mean doing the same as everyone else.

  2. An excellent reflection Charles. Unfortunately the issues you have observantly analysed are profoundly amplified in Safety.
    There is simply so little vision, innovation and lack of imagination in the industry, because all that matters is compliance, territory and power.

  3. The following link provides access to a report entitled “The patronising disposition of unaccountable power” from the former Bishop of Liverpool, The Right Reverend James Jones KBE.

    It describes many of the undesirable outcomes associated with the mechanistic worldview of risk and it’s not pretty:

  4. How entertaining to watch the likes of Alan Jones to invoke safety for capitalist gains. There’s nothing like invoking safety to shut down the binary mindset and demolish a good stadium.

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