Understanding Safety Myths
The term ‘mythology’ is not understood well and is associated with the idea of legend/fairy tale but that’s not its meaning. It is certainly not how myth is defined in social psychology. Mythology is really a set of beliefs supported by semiotics (symbol systems) and rituals that give meaning to those who attribute meaning to them.
When we hear someone say ‘I believe in zero’ we are hearing a myth. A myth is made true by affirmation and is usually symbolized, giving the myth identity. A myth is not about facts, evidence or substance but about constructed significance. Mythology cannot be analysed with the tools of engineering and science, it is completely ‘other’ than those disciplines. Indeed, neither of these disciplines has the intellectual tradition to understand what myth is. Mythology is best understood poetically. Poetics is not just about poetry but rather a non-rationalist method that transcends the Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) paradigm.
One of the best ways to understand how myths are created and sustained is through the philosophy of metaphysics. When a person or group hold to a false belief, it is very difficult to shift that belief. Most often when challenged, people reconstruct their belief in the face of contrary evidence through cognitive dissonance, and often become more deeply in trenched in that belief. Changing belief through logical/rational argument rarely causes a change in belief. Belief transcends the frameworks we think work. Similarly faith, the idea that we can take an action in risk not knowing the outcome, is what it means to be a fallible human. We take an action on limited evidence in the assumption we won’t be harmed.
Soon it will be Easter and many people will celebrate a concoction of myths in various ways. This is not to say that these are not meaningful, but one cannot use the equipment of STEM to understand them. Some will attribute religious meaning to what was once a pagan fertility cult (eggs) and make it what they want it to mean, a myth. A myth and a symbol are the same thing. The symbol in this case an egg, carries the power of the myth/belief.
Most notions of salvation projected in the safety industry are myths. There is no evidence that any of the rituals common to safety are efficacious, but they are believed. This is why when Hans-Horst Konkolewsky — President International ORP Foundation, Vision Zero Ambassador (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=preheDbNb1Y) and Helmut Ehnes, ISSA Mining Secretary General promote zero ((https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rUfCfSQhdfw), commence their projections about zero with statements of faith/belief. This is because faith in zero has to be maintained against all the evidence to the contrary. On evidence and data alone, zero is nonsense.
What a strange conundrum this industry has put itself in where on one side it maintains a focus on data/evidence and on the other a faith system infused with all the mythology and religious fervour of any salvation theology. On one hand we read about so called ‘safety science’ and then on the other endless mythology about belief in an ideology that has no evidence. Myth has no interest in accuracy or evidence.
The reason people often seek the transcendence of myths is to create meaning that lifts one out of the banal, profane and everyday uncertainty of daily fallible life. Often a symbol is then made a benchmark for belonging to the group belief, it gives the group meaning, but it is only real for them – a myth. Myths/symbols then become a way of explaining the world and through commitment guided by the emotions are solidified by habit, ritual, attribution and repetition.
To believe is to passionately commit to a way of experiencing the world. Any given set of beliefs is real to anyone who shares it. Durkheim stated: ‘no religions are false; all are true in their own fashion’.
Most myths are created by well-intentioned fictions and once symbolized are nearly impossible to shift. Once symbolized the myth takes on political power so that identity is benchmarked by the symbol.
Having embarked on the ideology of zero in 2017 the safety industry will never be able to rid itself of zero just as eggs at Easter are normalised as carrying symbolic significance. Zero as a symbol/myth has a power of its own and locks itself into the mythology of safety. Then when some become disenchanted by the one myth they create another one like 1% safe and maintain differentiation by mythological gobbledygook, as if something ‘new’ has been believed. There is no difference, it’s the same myth.