Thinking Outside the Safety Bubble

Thinking Outside the Safety Bubble

imageIt is good to read that someone recognizes the ‘safety bubble’, OHS Thoughts Trapped In The Bubble = thanks Kevin. The metaphor of a ‘bubble’ conveys the idea of an insular, self-absorbed environment that is inflated by delusion.

Image Source (I must get one of these, ED)

So, is the metaphor true? Unfortunately when one’s discourse is all about ‘compliance’ and ‘zero tolerance’, there is little chance of exploring transdisciplinary thinking. This is one of the biggest challenges facing the industry.

Where is the debate and sharp critical thinking in the sector? Where is there a forum for discussing transdisciplinary views? Where is the discussion in the sector that doesn’t fit the positivist/behaviourist view of the world? Unfortunately, the industry is awash with confirmation bias and so demonizes non-conformity, criticism and marginalizes non-agreement as ‘outsiders’. What is their problem? Why don’t they think like us? Yes, you can join us, but you have to conform with zero!

To test the truth of the metaphoric ‘bubble’ one simply has to ask, ‘what happens when one criticizes zero?’ If you are in any tier one organisation it is the sack. A similar metaphor used to convey the same idea is that of a ‘fortress’.

Living in Canberra makes for being labeled with this ‘bubble’ metaphor on a regular basis (; ). Of course the myth/symbol of the ‘Canberra Bubble’ sticks but it is simply not true ( The word ‘Canberra’ is now not just the name of a place, it has itself become a metaphor for living in a ‘bubble’.

I have a number of friends who have recently tried to leave the safety industry but it seems once one is branded with the word ‘safety’ in a CV or resume that makes the task nearly impossible. One friend tried for 6 months to get out of safety and was told at interview that a career in safety limits any chance of trans-disciplinary movement. It seems that the brand ‘safety’ indicates dumb down checklist thinking with an inability to adapt. If one’s job has been branded more about risk, leadership and culture then it appears movement across occupations is easier.

Unfortunately, safety is commonly as a bureaucratic but necessary, ‘embuggerance’ at work. So how can this be improved? What can we do constructively to burst the bubble?

The first thing is to understand that there are other worldviews that are not in sync with the behaviourist/positivist view that dominates safety. And, that criticism from such views about the safety bubble is not some nasty demon but simply the discourse from that valid view/philosophy. Indeed, critical deconstruction is good for safety. It’s only the binary view that if your criticize safety you are a safety hater. I can only listen to you if you agree to zero.

The second thing is to focus more on the language of ‘risk’ than ‘safety’, this draws people away from conversation about objects/hazards to conversations about people.

The third thing that would be helpful is to embrace perspectives from the professions eg. nursing, social work, teaching, law, medicine etc. Just try to talk the language of zero with these groups and you won’t last long. BTW, some of the best safety people I know come out of nursing and understand the dynamic of ‘helping’ and ‘advising’.

The fourth is to read outside of the safety bubble. If the book has the word ‘safety’ in it perhaps put it aside and expand your thinking. Read books more about: people, people skills, communication, leadership, politics, management, ethics, philosophy, human mind, the human unconscious, personhood, helping, counselling etc.

The fifth thing would be to change your language and use the word safety much less. After all, the definition of safety should be an outcome not a process.

A sixth would be to take on some study from another discipline.

Finally, try getting away from safety podcasts and listen to creative innovative stuff like:

The minefield

All in the mind

Ockhams Razor



Unfortunately, thinking outside the bubble of safety or criticizing safety will result in marginalization. This is a necessary trade-off and by-product of bursting any bubble. However, one also broadens one’s worldview, increases diversity and expands horizons in stepping outside the bubble and this helps with maturity and engagement.

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.

22 Replies to “Thinking Outside the Safety Bubble”

  1. I would also recommend anything by Thomas Hardy, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Anthony Burgess, Ernest Hemingway or Charles Dickens. However, most safety acolytes appear quite content with the back page of tabloid newspapers, anti-social media platforms and other forms of passive vicarious infotainment such as The Voice or MKR, which is often redolent of the lack of any vision.

  2. This article is interesting as it duplicate our safety industry almost 20yrs ago, “management” had thought that Zero was impossible, but then it was proven it was possible. So everybody, unfortunately including our profession, got on-board that Zero was the only answer to the question. Add in the advertisements for those magic bullets in the 2000’s or 2018 improvements in PPE, to the equations and attitudes such as what this author is facing return with vengeance.

    Is Zero the only answer – Yes. But what is the right question.

    I worked for a well known company with several different divisions / sub-companies. It was strange to me that even though Safety was preached all the way thru the organization – some of the different organizations search for the magic bullet. Others became zealots about following their management systems with graphs and charts and lots of details to show what was required.

    I have found that
    Executive Manager set the vision – help their personal achieve these goals
    Senior Management must set the tone – demanding improvement every single day
    It is taken over by the craft level
    Both groups will get thru the clay layer.

    Safety monitors the whole process as facilitators – hold each group accountable for their piece.
    Executive Management must step on anyone that does not hold to this visions, whether it be that the guy that gets the job done or the specialty contractor. No one get a free pass.

    As I have grown in my career, I have become to realize that Safety is a facilitator.

    Anyway, my two cents.

  3. Michael, thanks for your response. I would love to see any evidence that shows that zero is ‘proven possible’. Were humans involved? Were there systems? Is this undertaken on another solar system? For what duration?
    I achieved zero the other day for a few hours but then I had to eat.

  4. Rob – I am a Oil/Gas Construction Safety Professional. I had have a few projects were we went with out injury from start to finish. Not saying we did not have a our fair share of near misses – including some high potential near misses. But we did not have a reported first aid case. And yes, I had several company safety officials on site checking things out to ensure we were not playing with the books.

    We got the culture onsite to the point – where they did not accept things on site.

  5. Michael, how was injury in psychological injury and mental health in oil and gas? From my understanding this is a huge issue in FIFO. How many people were sick because of work systems? If its zero harm, then it needs to be consistent and across the board not just defined in some neat approach to first aid and physical injury. If its zero harm then we cannot be selective about the harm we count and the harm we ignore. I wonder what longitudinal harm is caused by working in oil and gas? What might show up in 12 months or longer through exposure etc?

    BTW, BP had seven years of zero when they had the Horizon Well disaster. Re culture, what is that? At BP it was toxic but because they counted safety in injury rates and mis-defined culture, it all ran underground. and when you look at your near misses etc, its probably just luck that these didn’t result in harm.

  6. The fundamental tenet of risk theory is that if something is possible it is only a matter of time before it happens and zero risk is a fallacy.

    The ineffectiveness of auditing regimes is highlighted by the resurgence of black lung in the coal mining sector across Appalachia in the US and in Queensland’s Bowen Basin. Exposure to respirable coal dust in underground coal mines was never even identified as a material risk via the self-insurance or JAS-ANZ auditing schemes in Australia.

    The collapse of Carillion in the United Kingdom revealed auditing involving via the big four (KPMG, PwC, Deloitte and EY) was a symbolic charade. Indeed one MP in UK parliament claimed he would never allow KMPG to conduct an audit on the contents of his fridge. Several of these renowned professional conglomerates were also involved in auditing the catastrophic home insulation program in Australia, which resulted in the deaths of four young workers.

    Then review media reports and coronial inquiry transcripts into the DreamWorld theme park disaster near Queensland’s Gold Coast……..”When I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun” – Hanns Johst:

  7. This might be a little off the point of this article, but maybe not. Did you watch the Sunday Night program last night regarding the Qantas flight that went wrong? The fact that Qantas has not spoken about this or even reported it to the general industry is a classic problem of hiding the facts to prevent harm to Qantas reputation as never having a crash. It was more important to maintain the illusion of zero than communicate the very real problem of relying on electronics to control the planes. If it hadn’t been for a pilot who had flown navy aircraft who went against normal procedures there would have been multiple fatalities and Qantas’ first crash. The statement made by the Pilot and Sully who landed his plane on the Hudson to say that no matter what electronics are put into planes, the pilot must always be able to fully control and fly the plane. Pilots can make decisions based on more than just written procedures. Perhaps if the conversation had occurred after this incident we may have had two aircraft and 300 souls still alive today.

  8. Peter, I think you are spot on. Few people see the connection between underlying ideologies and the outcome of the incident for Qantas. Lots of these problems occur deep within organisations that don’t realise they have a basic philosophy that mitigates against safety, then they declare safety First but it remains a slogan.
    The story of Boeing’s Max 8 is a classic example. they knew of the fault but chose to ignore it until 2 planes crashed. This kind of denial is fueled by absolutes in organisation and management in the language of zero. People don’t understand the command language has in setting culture and at Boeing it is clear they had huge problems.
    Of course the safety industry denies luck and continues to speak in dumb binary language that anchors culture to ‘all accidents are preventable’ and ‘zero is the only goal’ and ‘safety is a choice you make’. The industry advances nowhere with such extraordinary mythology and simply no vision being espoused anywhere. Instead, it loves petty issues and campaigns on propositions but never looks at itself and the fundamentally flawed ideologies that plague how it thinks.

  9. Whenever I hear ‘zero harm’ my eyes glaze over as I project myself into the role of the safety officer for my favourite football team. Every Saturday morning my job would be to give the talk about zero harm, where all injuries are preventable. I would tell the team that their individual safety is absolutely our first priority and they must not go in hard, jump too high or turn too quickly if there is a risk of getting hurt, or of hurting someone else.

    Late on every Saturday I would pout, shake my head and add insults to their injuries, obviously.

  10. At the recent SIA conference I was in a room full of safety professionals who were asked if they believed in zero harm – not a single person put their hand up. I was quite surprised – granted it was a small sample, but if it does represent the majority of the industry then why is “zero” continuing to grow? Perhaps lawyers, boards, CEOs and senior managers are driving it…maybe it sounds catchy, maybe they’re jumping on the bandwagon, maybe they’re scared of unions kicking up, maybe they want to look like they care about safety and not injuring people. And perhaps the safety professionals fear speaking out against this for fear of losing their job, so they toe the company line.

  11. Adam, I think you are right about safety people not speaking out, they will definitely lose their job.
    The trouble is the SIA, NSCA and regulators all endorse zero because they need the money from tier one companies for their survival, no different from not speaking out because you have a mortgage.
    However, as long as the industry and safety as an archetype loves zero it can never be professional. The denial of fallibility is an indicator of insanity. There can be no professionality without an ethic of risk.
    The pervasive nature of zero is prefaced on the dumb binary nature of thinking in the general populace and in management (not leadership) that supposes that their is no third way. The silly question ‘how many people do you want injured today?’ is evidence of intellectual idiocy. The ideology of zero is not evidence of care but rather evidence of dumb control and not wanting to think.

  12. If you are not prepared to resign or be fired for what you believe in, then you are not a
    worker, let alone a professional. You are a slave – Howard Gardner

  13. It’s very clear that safety people are often made servants to the political powers in organisations. Indeed, most are not skilled at identifying or analysing the politics of organising. Why should they, their studies have indoctrinated them about the ethic of compliance in all things not dissent or deviance. The critical sign to ensure compliance and control compliance is masterfully established through the symbology of zero. Zero provides the most convenient tool to filter and sort out those who are non-compliant. So safety people often have to be schizophrenic in that they nod their head publicly to the CEO and yet privately believe zero is nonsense.

  14. It’s getting to the point where we can’t even speak out in forums or social media – organisations now have policies that restrict what their staff can say in such public manners. If they don’t like what is said they can terminate your employment, though I’m not sure how well it would hold up in court if challenged.

  15. Adam, the regime of zero is absolute and it endorses absolutes in politics. Unfortunately, zero is now so all pervasive across the risk and safety sector that one either conforms or doesn’t get a job. So much for being professional. Of course, the real victim who pays the price is the sector itself, without healthy debate and questioning there can be no learning. And so, the religious investment is complete, no heretics will be tolerated and anything outside of STEM logic is deemed evil.

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