What’s in a Safety Mantra?
One of the characteristics of the safety industry is the repetition of process, rituals and language attributed to have salvic purpose, to save lives. Any examination of the language of the safety industry reveals an extensive soteriology (theory of salvation). The formula goes something like this: ‘if you perform these acts, signs, processes or systems, you should expect to be saved’. This is why blaming is such a characteristic of safety, because if you had done everything right, you should be saved. This is why Safety is so surprised when all that is done (within all its limited and fallible knowledge) an event occurs and a person is injured.
The rhetoric of safety is consistent with its worldview that ‘all accidents are preventable’ and ‘safety is a choice you make’. This language leads naturally to the mantra of ‘zero harm’ and then by consequence to zero vision ideology. Once one constructs reality by measuring injury rates, one is on a slippery slide to the conclusion of infallibility for human persons. It’s then crazy time, every safety advisor I know is somehow held responsible if there is an injury in the workplace. I’d like a dollar for the number of safety advisors who lose their job because of an incident at work. The grand merry-go-round of moving safety advisors about organisations is the name of the game.
When systems, rituals, processes and acts take on salvic purpose, whether one knows it or not, they become sacred. Their performance becomes conditional for safety effectiveness. The conclusion is then, if you take away any of this, people will be harmed. It doesn’t matter that these acts, rituals and processes don’t work, it is what is ‘believed’ that matters. This is why safety has taken on such religious power in recent history. There is not stronger evidence of this than linking the mantra of zero to the slogan ‘just believe’. This was displayed in full colour at the World Congress on Safety and Health 2017 (https://safetyrisk.net/no-evidence-for-the-religion-of-zero/). When it comes to the denial of fallibility, Safety is in a league of its own (https://safetyrisk.net/safety-for-true-believers/; https://safetyrisk.net/safety-as-faith-healing/). The zero mantra remains the global language for the industry (http://visionzero.global/events-and-trainings ).
The use of the language of ‘belief’ is everywhere in zero discourse in the safety industry. When one attributes salvic purpose to processes for the reduction of injury to zero, the only trajectory can be religious.
One of the greatest challenges for all the organisations I work with, is their fear and anxiety about disposing of the ‘zero’ word and discourse. Such fear and anxiety is present because the mantra has been made synonymous with the safety cult. Such is the power of mantras and rituals. This is why the language has changed to ‘towards zero’ or the numerics of ‘1% safer’. The last thing that can be removed is the mantra of zero, so the language is changed and the mantra remains.
It takes years for organisations to shift away from zero mythology to realize it doesn’t work. It’s an attribution, it doesn’t work. Yet, the industry continues to claim it works and believe it works (http://visionzero.global/resources ), even though there is no evidence. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that organisations captivated by the ideology of zero actually have worse safety outcomes than those who don’t believe in zero (Dekker – https://www.ccscheme.org.uk/publications/industryimage/issue41/files/assets/common/downloads/page0046.pdf ).
This brings us to the power of mantras. A mantra is considered sacred text, talk and discourse. The sound and rhythm of mantras are associated with all religious identity. Mantras are used as political leverage in the organizing of people for identity to a group. Excommunication is often created by rejection of a mantra. If you don’t ‘believe’, then you can’t belong. This is why many people in safety who don’t believe in zero remain silent about zero, for they know if they question it, they will be out. That data tells a very different story (https://safetyrisk.net/take-the-zero-survey/), over 85% of the industry don’t believe in zero.
Zero holds this power as an archetype for belief. Silence is then assumed as assent. Then political power is invested with semiotic power so that it zero becomes impossible to remove. You would have as much chance as removing a cross from a church.
If you want to learn more about this dynamic of mantras and rituals perhaps have a look at this: http://ndl.ethernet.edu.et/bitstream/123456789/14651/1/60%20pdf.pdf
Mantras are given power by: repetition, lack of questioning, salvic ritual and semiotic investment.
The first stage of all movement away from zero in the organisations I work with is removing all posters, images and reporting to zero in the organization. This usually takes 12 months, not to take down the posters but to deal with the anxiety, such is the power of belief. How surprised they are when all this is taken away and things improve. Yet, it is so challenging given the power of the belief.
This story could be told over and over, of organisations that discover that the removal of zero improves safety. This is documented in the next book in the series on risk entitled: It Works! A New Approach to Risk and Safety. The book is due for release in a few weeks.