The Power of Symbols in Safety

safety symbolsWe saw the story recently of the Nazi flag being flown in Beulah Victoria. Interestingly, the etymology of the word ‘Beulah’ designates a mystical place tied to Jewish identity.

The controversy over the flying of the flag demonstrates the power of symbols to stir the emotions and draw to the surface morality and ethical values (yes they are different) embedded in symbols. All symbols carry ethical (systemic) and moral (personal) value hidden in the history of the symbol. For example, the Australian flag has the symbol of a foreign country in the corner of the flag, a symbol of our colonial past and insecurity as a Nation. The UK is now ranked eighth in trade to Australia. Interestingly, the Australian flag is now often flown as a symbol of racism (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-01-24/aussie-flag-bearers-more-racist3a-survey/3790172) than to identify nationality.

Symbol and metaphor are the common language across all disciplines and form the basis for a transdisciplinary approach to communication across Knowledge Cultures (that is the way professionalization creates enclosed cultures).

Symbols and metaphor rise above the idea of an objective text that simply defines what is real. Both symbol and metaphor function by relating something indirectly to something else to enhance understanding. This is the opposite of dictionary thinking that just describes something directly as if it can be objectively known. All symbols and metaphor are interpreted.

Lakoff and Johnson (Metaphors We Live By, p.196) discuss the STEM-only assumptions about metaphor that assumes such a thing as objectivity, that:

· Truth is a matter of fitting words to the world.
A theory of meaning for natural language is based on a theory of truth, independent of the way people understand and use language.

· Meaning is objective and disembodied, independent of human understanding.

· Sentences are abstract objects with inherent structures.
The meaning of a sentence can be obtained from the meanings of its parts and the structure of the sentence.

· Communication is a matter of a speaker’s transmitting a message with a fixed meaning to a hearer.

· How a person understands a sentence, and what it means to him, is a function of the objective meaning of the sentence and what the person believes about the world and about the con-text in which the sentence is uttered.

All of these assumptions are disproved on the very first incident investigation. One’s worldview is influenced by a host of social factors that renders objectivity as obsolete. One’s symbols and metaphors reveal the worldview of Safety (https://safetyrisk.net/symbols-matter/ ). At a theoretical level Safety selects symbols like risk matrices, Bradley curve, pyramids, swiss cheese, bow-ties etc that all give the impression that risk is mathematical, numerical, objective and scientific. Each carries and hides its own ethic and so Safety teaches these is curriculum and certification as if they are objective and as if data is not interpreted. Each symbols is like a metaphor and carries with it the emotion of comfort as if some certainty of risk has been designated. All the symbols actually do is provide cultural comfort but none help much in assessing risk. They serve the same purpose as the Nazi flag, they say much more about how one has been indoctrinated into a Knowledge Culture than they do actually help assess risk. Many safety symbols are meaningless in other knowledge cultures particularly professions that reject the ideology of zero.

What accepted safety symbols do at an unconscious level is: dumb down the practitioner against investigating widely and thinking critically, form a common agreed language for the safety club and delude the user into thinking such symbols will have some legal credibility in court, the opposite is the case (https://vimeo.com/166158437 ).

18. DIAGNOSIS from Human Dymensions on Vimeo.

The most common symbols in the safety industry are the very practical signs that provide information on site, what we might describe as the ‘do and don’t’ symbols. The purpose of such symbols is intended to be direct and beyond interpretation and if possible to conform to an International standard. However, even then the meanings of such symbols are not obvious which is why we often induct people into the meaning of safety symbols. There is no common sense. Of all these symbols very few promote the importance of observation and conversation on site.

When we look at the use of the Nazi flag in Beulah Victoria we know exactly about its power and attached emotions, it validates hate, racism, evil, vilification and prejudice. The opposite of virtues trust, love, acceptance, tolerance and listening. In this case it was flown across from the house of a holocaust survivor. The owners knew the symbol was offensive.

In safety we need to chose our symbols, metaphors and models wisely (https://safetyrisk.net/wisdom-based-safety/), to know their emotive character and the ethic they carry. Do our safety symbols humanize risk or do they dehumanise persons? Are our symbols a carry-over from old thinking and need to be dropped? Are our symbols offensive? Do our symbols dumb down rather than smarten up? Have we thought about the kind of culture our symbols generate? These are all critical ethical questions not considered in the AIHS BoK on Ethics.

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.

4 Replies to “The Power of Symbols in Safety”

  1. Dear Rob,

    I have just finished re-reading Eric Hobsbawm’s fascinating book entitled “Fractured Times – Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century.” It makes Safety’s militaristic or regimental definition of culture rather narrow and it’s hardly surprising the book does not appear in any of Safety’s references

    1. Bernard, the criteria required to make a reading list in safety is to ensure that the word ‘zero’ is in the title, otherwise the professionals won’t read it.

  2. Dear Rob,

    I have just finished re-reading Eric Hobsbawm’s fascinating book entitled “Fractured Times – Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century.” It makes Safety’s militaristic or regimental definition of culture rather narrow and it’s hardly surprising the book does not appear in any of Safety’s references

    1. Bernard, the criteria required to make a reading list in safety is to ensure that the word ‘zero’ is in the title, otherwise the professionals won’t read it.

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