The Mythic Symbology of Safety

The Mythic Symbology of Safety

imageOne of the strange contradictions in the world of safety is between the positivist materialist paradigm that dominates the WHS curriculum/texts and the mythic symbology that dominates safety discourse about the activity of enacting safe-work. How strange that one should use language and images associated with the mythology of Greek heroes in understanding the task of acting safely. No wonder the industry is confused about its own identity.

One of the main reasons that managers and safety people cannot ‘attend’ to psychological harm is that the safety sector in curriculum and training is simply not educated to be sensitive to it. The WHS curriculum is consumed up to 75% with measurement and counting, where would it get the skills to learn to be sensitive about psychological harm? Indeed, the STEM-only paradigm that dominates WHS curriculum cannot even ask good questions about psychological harm because it has no grounding in a transdisciplinary approach to curriculum. Neither is STEM trained or skilled in curriculum itself, again this would rely on a transdisciplinary approach to knowledge in the disciplines of Education and Learning. Therefore, it is no surprise that safety is imbued with images of super-heroes and Greek myth rather than images that invoke empathy and compassion.

In my latest book: Fallibility and Risk, Living With Uncertainty (now with more than 2000 downloads – I spend considerable space discussing the nature of mythology and symbology in the risk industry (p. 26-35). How strange that an industry consumed with measurement and counting should drift into Greek mythology to explain itself. Moreso, it is because of the risk and safety industry is so mis-educated that it is unable to understand its own drift into religious mythology in seeking self-identity. Myth is defined by Ricoeur as:

‘Myth will here be taken to mean what the history of religions now finds in it: not a false explanation
by means of images and fables, but a traditional narration which relates to events that happened at the beginning of time and which has the purpose of providing grounds for the ritual actions of men of today and, in a general manner, establishing all the forms of action and thought by which man understands himself in the world.’

As I state in my book:

‘Myth connects the empirically real with the mystical and sacred in the form of signs and symbols and
thus portrays how the world is with how people would like it to be. We see such an appropriation of this understanding of myth in popular culture and movies. Many of the blockbusters in the last 10 years have been focused on transcendence, the sacred and mythological explanations of the world.’

It is through myth and symbology that we mediate our understandings of life. When we deny what is fallible with the language of infallibility (zero) in safety discourse then no wonder Dekker describes bridging the gap between engineering and psychology as ‘ontological alchemy’ ( The more safety endeavours to measure the immeasurable, the more it can only drift into religious mythology in its discourse. No wonder the DuPont Bradley Curve describes the human propensity to err in the discourse of original sin ( How else could one atone for total human depravity and get to zero without infallibility.

Without a transdisciplinary education safety doesn’t even know how religious it is. This was demonstrated so vividly at the World Safety Congress 2017 ( As I state in the Fallibility and Risk (p. 34):

‘Disciplines that are materialist-pragmatist in orientation like STEM don’t have a hermeneutic or language to consider such metaphysical questions nor is it something STEM practices or has the language to explore. This is why when the risk industry worldview seeks answers to these metaphysical questions it ends up talking about matters of faith, transhumanism and the symbolism of zero. Ah, we will be perfect one day.’

On page 42 of Fallibility and Risk I list more than 20 different examples of how safety expresses safety-work through the hero myth. The semiotics of each of these mythical heroes are wrapped in Greek mythological graphics and symbols. All are hyperlinked in the book. You can learn more about Greek mythology here:

When fallibility and mortality are the enemy, only a hero will do.

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.

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