There is Nothing more Imaginative We can Do in Safety

There is Nothing more Imaginative We can Do in Safety

Imagination is the bedrock of any risk assessment yet the risk industry is so silent about it. When it comes to risk assessment it’s not likely that the things we already know are going to hurt anyone. It is always the unseen risks, the things that we can’t imagine that tend to hurt people. Indeed, the writing off of possibilities is a mindset that plagues orthodox safety. This mindset is cultivated by ‘checklist thinking’ that sets out all the known risks designed by orthodox thinking (complete with behaviourist assumptions). Then we run through that checklist as if that somehow it helps envision the perception of unseen risks and possibilities.

So, we can flare up and carry on about fatalities in the workplace ( but the message is always the same ‘take more care’. Ah yes, that’s what we need ‘more care’ because people die because they are not careful! There some vision for you.

How amazing that Safety ventures forward only considering processes within its own paradigm. It couldn’t possibly be that any new insights could come outside of the risk Body of Knowledge (SRMBoK and SIA BoK)? It couldn’t possibly be that anything in the transdisciplinary space or social psychological space might offer new hope to an industry bankrupt of vision? All the bodies of knowledge do is set in concrete the assumptions of the body of knowledge. The body of knowledge can also act as a constraint imagination and serve as a paradigm for conformity and compliance. We see this in how safety censors the industry (

Just do a little Google search for these words together ‘risk’, ‘safety’ and ‘imagination’, what turns up? The top 5 references are on this site! Try and see if anyone from the orthodox safety sector, including Safety Differently, discusses the importance of imagination in risk management. Hmmm, you won’t find anything. When you are bogged down in materialist-scientist assumptions and consumed with measurement why would imagination be of any interest? Why would Safety think it has anything to learn from novelists, poets, artists, musicians, composers and dreamers about risk assessment? Engineering thinking that’s what we need. Hard science, forget this aesthetic-poetics stuff.

Those who can imagine see what others don’t see. Those with vision see the world prophetically, not in the sense of seeing the future but rather in understanding and joining the dots of human being, doing and becoming.

It’s highly unlikely that one can develop imagination from checklist thinking. Checklist thinking simply replicates the philosophy and methodological ideology of the checklist designer. Checklists designed by engineers and ‘safety science’ people are limited by the assumptions of the design discipline. One is unlikely to learn to think ‘outside the box thinking’ if the ideology of an industry is fixated on compliance and zero. You aren’t going to find the critical thinkers and mavericks within the fold of compliance/zero orthodoxy.

One of the things about imagination is that it tends to be squashed the moment children enter the school system. The moment children hit school, all the subjects associated with imagination and creativity are devalued by the school system and are timetabled accordingly. When I worked in schools the ratio was 8:1 in favour of STEM subjects. Similarly, the nature of learning through play is suppressed by schools just as it is suppressed in the safety industry. Even the nonsense idea of ‘structured play’ is not play but people fall for it thinking it is creative. Ken Robinson has demonstrated this over many years see:

· Do Schools Kill Creativity –

· How to Escape educations Death Valley –

· Expanding Our Definitions of Smart –

· Reimagine Education –

Of course, the risk industry operates like schooling in the way it sensors creativity. It is neither interested in the unconscious, daydreaming, dreaming or the Wayward Mind yet, it talks all the time about complacency. You won’t find a workshop on imagination anywhere in the risk industry but you will find volumes on human error and complacency. Hmmm, so just what is complacency? Apparently, not trying hard enough and needing to ‘take more care’. How exasperating! Here is an industry that spruiks the word ‘complacency’ but has no idea what complacency is. How remarkable! Mostly complacency is understood as a lack of care, which of course it isn’t. Complacency is a highly complex dialectic between the conscious and unconscious mind (and I don’t mean brain).

So, if we need to be more imaginative in risk and safety management, how can we learn to be more imaginative? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. The first thing we need to do is slow down and learn to reflect, to ponder and think critically. This can’t happen if the industry itself is consumed with busyness and checklists.
  2. The next is to actually study how to think critically, how to ask better questions and how to interrogate the assumptions of worldviews and people’s paradigms. We do this in out iThink Program (

  3. We also need to practice imagination by engaging with disciplines of imagination. Taking up a transdisciplinary interest in an aesthetic activity would be a good start. Even practicing visualization skills is helpful.

  4. One thing risk and safety must do is reduce the number of checklists it uses. Most checklists are designed by engineers and project managers and are severely limited by the assumptions of those disciplines. This is particularly clear when one looks at the most popular incident investigation tools on the market at the moment. If you want to learn how to do an incident investigation differently, creatively and imaginatively the next SEEK Workshop is on 6,7 March 2019 –

  5. It is important too to have a good space and place to imagine. Even changes is office design, what one can see, art and plants can make a difference. Even a walk in a park at lunch is better than nothing. Getting out of the office is essential. Having a sense of wonder and mystery is also helpful particularly, engaging in activities that don’t focus on answers, problems and ‘fixes’.

  6. Talking to imaginative people is also important. Engage with some ‘trouble makers’. Ask them questions. Find out what makes them tick.

  7. Do something creative with how you undertake a risk assessment. Suspend key parts of a risk assessment process and see how it goes ‘ad lib’. Don’t worry, you won’t be missing much. Especially get rid of those stupid colour matrices that heavily influence reductionist thinking.

  8. Try using a format in risk assessment that allows for free association and concept mapping. It may look messy but life is messy and placing issues and events in a table simply restricts thinking to the constructs of the table. The more tidy you make your risk assessments the less likely you will be able to ‘see’ non-linear and non-reductionist issues.

  9. Another way to learn imagination is to exit the binary world that dominates safety. You don’t get much more dumb down than the binary stupidity of: ‘what is an acceptable number of fatalities?’ Binary thinking is a straightjacket on imagination and pervades all levels of the risk and safety sector.

  10. Moving away from text-based and numerical-based thinking to semiotic thinking will certainly help with imagination. This doesn’t mean one has to be an artist but rather become more aware of how the world is a ‘semiosphere’ of sign systems.

Perhaps start by taking an interest in the imagination by keeping a journal of ideas and concept maps. Perhaps play with your children more and see how they free associate and visualize things. Just imagine what a risk assessment could look like if you could think like Dali or Blake.

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.

10 Replies to “There is Nothing more Imaginative We can Do in Safety”

  1. A recent media release on the WHS Queensland website, which happened several years ago on the Origin Energy APLNG project near Biloela is almost identical:

    Some of the egregious language such as take care, blind enthusiasm or silly season with an inordinate emphasis on administrative nostrums implies black box behaviourist psychology with rational decision making. Individuals are far more than a reducible quotient of a system’s inputs and outputs and at the human machine interface it is not like approaching an and/or gate in an event or fault tree analysis diagram.

    1. Worksafe Qld loves zero and thinks it has something to do with leadership. Zero is anti-leadership, anti-learning and anti-thinking.

  2. This is a problem in every sphere, not just in safety. Most people have had the creativity, curiosity and imagination beaten out of them by the education system and the world of work so it’s no surprise we don’t see those attributes being used in the workplace. The task we have is to restore those and other attributes before we will be able to make progress. Deming gives us a few more diminished attributes in this

  3. Of course Duncan but much more in the risk and safety industry. In most sectors there is not the same fixation on dumb down thinking and behaviourism. Search any other sector for a focus on imagination and you will find it, in safety there is simply nothing. A testament to a sector that simply discourages critical thinking because all it wants is compliance. So when it comes to people skills and creativity safety is so weak. As long as it spruiks zero and keeps counting all is well.

  4. Picture yourself in a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies. Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly a girl with kaleidoscope eyes……Lucy in the sky with diamonds.
    However, amongst most corporate pirates with their profits of cents, LSD merely relates to the Friedman doctrine

  5. I doubt that many in safety would know what the Freidman Doctirne is despite the fact that its mechanistic tentacles thread through much of safety orthodoxy. One would need an education in critical theory as a minimum to critique the Friedman Doctrine and the toxicity it excuses to harm people in the name of good. Zero is a perfect example of Freidman propaganda and how the short term binary mindlessness cons many to think its just a goal.

  6. I would agree the first port of call in hazard identification is imagination, what could go wrong and cause harm. Then we move to risk analysis with likelihood and probability and destroy the imagination by saying “that’s a low probability of happening” basing the analysis on ones education and experience in the workplace.

    We make it even more complicated adopting the STEM approach and start talking about quantitative risk assessments, bow ties and other engineering and scientific tools which Engineers and the elks have spent years learning about, Tools that are being used to say more resulting risk number is better than yours. Instead of being more focused on identifying hazards.

    The end result is we come up with complicated solutions, using the tertiary education that many of us process, to turn simple problems into complex issues.

    I don’t totally agree with the comment, that imagination is beaten out of your by the education, I personally think we learn all this knowledge in education I we must apply i somewhere. To use of this approach is demonstrated by an simple problem solving exercise I have used in training I write on the board the alphabet in lower case, with letters with tales below the line and ones without tales above the line, I then ask typically engineers to solve the pattern. They draw on their education and start counting the letters trying to work out the pattern, whilst they are doing this I comment that first class students solve this pattern within seconds. The angst of no quickly solving the problem becomes evident,.

    Because the engineers have a lot of knowledge to draw, they want to use it- I paid for it I must use it .

    I would say knowledge and experience gets in the way of imagination, if you let it.

    My final comment we have been doing, as a industry, risk assessments for over 25 years- and what we haven’t identified all the workplace hazards – well WTF been going on.

  7. One comment. I don’t see any exclusivity in the various threads. For instance, checklists are used to good effect in aviation…. I don’t want to see them disappear in favour of imagination only….

  8. David, I’ve made no suggestion we do without checklists rather checklist thinking is all we do. There is simply no balance. It’s as if imagination has no place in risk assessment. The industry is noisy about zero and counting and totally silent about imagination. I wonder why? It’s very clear that the constraints of behaviourism plague an industry that is stuck in a box. Indeed, any criticism of the industry is demonised and rejected as non-compliance. The culture of the industry is unknown to itself and that’s the box it has created for itself. Just look at the WHS curriculum and yet everyone defends it.

  9. John, a profound lack of imagination lays out a vision which is without vision. Pronounced it as visionary and it’s more of the same. Saviours through systems and more of the same, branded as the emperors new clothes. Such a sad culture that loves blind compliance and demonises criticism. The safety curriculum hasn’t changed in 30 years and we think some innovation and imagination will come from what? Zero!

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