The Religion of Safety

The Religion of Safety

imageThe recent World Safety Conference shows just how religious in nature and less secular Safety is becoming. We are seeing the rise of the desperate and fearful Safety Fundamentalists, the zealous worship of the zero harm mantra and the denial of fallibility and suffering. Rob Long saw the evidence early on and has been writing about the religiosity of safety for many years. He is more qualified than most safety people to do so, having formal qualifications and extensive experience in both theology and safety. Sidney Dekker has likewise been vocal on the religious like fundamentalism of Safety and I’ve published an extract from his latest article, “The Safety Profession Can be Like The Priesthood” below.

The theme of this blog now is the “Social Psychology of Risk (SPoR)”. SPoR is really non or anti religious in that it is about critical thinking, interrogating evidence and questioning beliefs, ethics, power and world views rather than hanging onto sacred ideas and processes. Some of our recent “Safety As A Religion” related articles are:

No Evidence for the Religion of Zero

Is Harm and Suffering Evil?

Don’t Dare Speak the ‘f’ Word

Safety Gives Me the Right over Other Rights

The Seduction of the Safety Adjective

To Err is Human, To Forgive Divine

It’s a Great Goal, it Just Doesn’t Work

Safety as Faith Healing

Supernatural Safety

Safety for True Believers

Heretical, Unorthodox and Sacrilegious Safety

You Spell the Devil L-T-I and God P-P-E

Nonsense Curves and Pyramids

Zealots – A Cause For Concern?

If only Jesus was a Safety Guy

Safety Is A Job Not A Sacred Calling

The New Safety Saviour – Algorithms


First published here:

Lincoln Eldrige, who probably wouldn’t want to be called a ‘safety professional,’ suggested to me some years ago that the safety profession is like a priesthood. I have always considered this an intriguing assertion, and finally decided to dig into it a bit more. What I found was fascinating parallels between belief systems that manage anxieties and hopes even a post-secular world, and the credentialism of a new priesthood that is (self-)ordained to assuage and inspire those anxieties and hopes. But first I found strong parallels between belief systems of different times that are intended to make us feel ‘safe.’ Let me tell you about my findings.

Belief systems to keep us safe

Humans, says research, have an unlimited capacity for creating belief systems by which to live. Humans might also have a never-quenched need for such belief systems (Taylor, 2007). This is because belief systems answer fundamental, existential human needs. They help us understand why we suffer; they offer us solace and assurance, a sense of security. They give us meaning, direction, an order to hold onto (Ehrman, 2008). And they give us rules. This doesn’t mean that they are static. As our societies develop and evolve, so do our belief systems (Wright, 2009). What we believe in, and which rules we choose to make and follow, is never disconnected from the concrete problems of human existence, religious scholar Karen Armstrong (1993) concluded. Belief systems are an ongoing answer to them. When belief systems are no longer useful, when they fail to deal with the practical concerns of everyday life, they eventually get changed. “God is dead,” Nietzsche proclaimed boldly in 1882, but then he added, “but the way people are, there may still for millennia be caves in which has shadow will be shown.”[1] This realization is behind skepticism about secularization as a mere lossof beliefs. Shadows of those beliefs, or more, are everywhere. In an increasingly secular age, it isn’t that we stop believing, invoking moral law or following rules. Rather, we change what we believe in, what we consider to be moral law, and which rules we make and follow.

After proclaiming that God was dead, Nietzsche asked “how should we comfort ourselves?” He recognized that the need for comfort was still there, but that we gradually had to change what supplied it. Where religious beliefs no longer prove useful in supplying answers to problems of safety and security, for instance, we start turning to something else. And that transition has been going on for a while:

The industrialization and resulting bureaucratization of American culture, organizational historians have described, eroded the authority of churches. In the 1890s railroads killed six to seven thousand persons each year. Worshippers recognized that they faced wrongdoers beyond their control. Churches could hardly admonish corporations effectively (Stearns, 1990, p. 536).

As Barry Turner concluded in the 1970’s, disasters were not acts of god, but “man-made” (1978). We really needed to start looking somewhere else to explain them, and to divine and predict and prevent them. The most visible changes have indeed occurred over the last forty years. It is not difficult to time the manifold and accelerating increase in the number of safety rules, statutes and regulations since the 1970’s (Saines et al., 2014; Townsend, 2013), and see it coincide with the decline of religious beliefs and church attendance in the West. This time frame also matches the growth of public spending on accident investigations (Stoop & Dekker, 2012). We seem to have increasingly turned to secular rules to keep us safe and secure, and to scientific explanations for why things go wrong. Science and secular institutions have picked up what religion could no longer credibly muster: the explanation of, and presumed mastery over, human misfortune.

This would fit social anthropologist Mary Douglas’ thinking about modernism and secularization. Modernism doesn’t necessarily lead to secularization, she argued. While church attendance and stated religious affiliation might indeed decline, it isn’t as if that leaves a vacuum. Because other belief systems, other rules, other authorities take up the newly vacated places. Like Emile Durkheim before her, Douglas believed that social relations drive the creation and congealing of ‘religious’ kinds of beliefs, principles, myths, rules and rituals. That happens in modern, secular institutions (such as compliance-driven bureaucratic organizations) too. Expressions of beliefs, principles, myths, rules and rituals change, but they don’t disappear with modernization (Douglas, 1992). Such mythmaking can be seen in Health and Safety today (Besnard & Hollnagel, 2014). What makes the myths ‘religious’ in kind, or at least a good secular stand-in, is for example:

  • Ideas and beliefs in safety are sometimes taken on faith and authority rather than empirical evidence. This might include the idea that a boss or supervisor who doesn’t follow the rules is devastating for a ‘safety culture’ (Marsh, 2013);
  • Social cohesion carried by ritual, myth and professed values. You can see this in so-called ‘safety share’ moments before executive meetings which resemble a kind of religious reflection, a mini-sermon on moral teachings, or a communal prayer. You can also see this on posters which piously proclaim that ‘safety is our number one priority’ all over a worksite;
  • Moral instruction and surveillance of behavior. You can recognize this in an organization’s insistence on having a ‘safety conversation’ with a colleague who didn’t do a take-five checklist before a simple task.
  • Rituals of confession, repentance and forgiveness (today called incident reporting, disclosure and implementation of recommendations, for example).

Such examples show that secularization is not a wholesale disengagement from beliefs, social rituals, myths and moral authority, but a re-casting and reorientation of them. Their reinvention both fits and helps shape the industrial, bureaucratic and capitalist relations of our era. As Nietzsche predicted in the 1880’s, religiosity continues to act in corporate and social life (Wood, 2015). In these ways, and others, “the structures of modern industrial society, despite great modifications in different areas and national cultures, produce remarkably similar situations for religious traditions and the institutions that embody these” (Berger, 1967, p. 113).

Belief systems give us authorities, priesthoods and rules

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