The Mechanistic Worldview and the Dehumanisation of Risk
It 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:
- Understand how the mechanistic worldview works and how acceptance of this worldview feeds its appetite.
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.
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.
Shift the safety discourse to a proper understanding of culture rather than confusing culture with systems and behaviour.
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.