Culture Silences in Safety Symbolism

Culture Silences in Safety Symbolism

When safety uses the word ‘culture’ it is most often define by behaviourist assumptions. Just look at how safety defines culture and it’s most often ‘what we do around here’. A completely useless definition of culture. When an industry like safety is so weighed down by engineering and scientism it is no wonder there are so many silences in how it tackles culture.

In the previous blog, I discussed mythology as foundational to an understanding of culture ( ). Coupled to mythology is symbolism. Mythology and symbolism are the flip side of the same coin. One can’t talk about one without the other, except in safety where neither is discussed at all.

All mythology is embodied symbolically. All myths are anchored symbolically.

Myths are not factually true but symbolically true.

Both mythology and symbolism speak to the human unconscious, they are the language of the unconscious. When we dream, it is through the symbolism of dreaming that our unconscious ‘speaks’ to us. Dreams are not some interruption to sleep but are the foundation of sleep and, essential for mental wellness and well-being ( ). When we pay attention to our dreaming we pay attention to what our unconscious is telling us.

The content of our dreams whilst interesting are not as important as what our dream symbolize. Isn’t it fascinating that when we are released from our consciousness in sleep that all our unconscious wants to do is symbolize to us.

This is also why when considering culture one should not be silent about religion. Yet in safety you will find no sense of culture that includes an emphasize on the importance of understanding mythology and symbolism (except in this blog site). Mythology and symbolism are entwined in religion and understanding this helps one understand culture more generally.

When one observes the nature of religion in culture one explores the ways in which humans construct meaning in societies through myths, symbols and ritual. And don’t think for a second that the culture of safety doesn’t include these.

Just wander down the pathway of symbolism in zero and you will be overwhelmed by the language of belief, rituals of salvation, mythology, mysticism and metaphysics. Just watch the video ‘Spirit of Zero’ and tell me this is not so ( ). When safety requires that one ‘believes the impossible’ ( ) this is the same kind of faith that asks to believe in god.

Of course, safety gets itself into this predicament because it doesn’t understand culture and remains silent about so many critical elements of culture.

When one looks at the symbols of safety one also quickly learns the myths connects to such symbols eg. ‘safety is a choice you make’ and ‘all accidents are preventable’ are both myths connected to zero. Through the MiProfile survey ( ) I can confirm that 75% of people in industry believe both these myths. Symbols such as swiss cheese, risk matrix and pyramids anchor such myths. None of these are factually true or real but are made symbolically true so to maintain belief in the myths.

The truth and reality of the matter is that human and the world are fallible ( ). The only way one can deny this reality is symbolically and mythologically. Once Safety enters this sphere of belief it becomes religious ( ). It starts talking about salvation, being saved and ‘safety saves’ (see Figure 1. Safety Saves).

Figure 1. Safety Saves


When one is silent on so many essentials in understanding culture it is no wonder that Safety can’t see what its myths, symbols and rituals do.

We have witnessed recently the importance of the symbol of ‘Z’ to the Russians in the war in Ukraine ( ). The symbol is an essential anchor to the belief in Russian power. One could no sooner remove the ‘Z’ off tanks and missiles than one could remove the Russian flag. Symbols give meaning as do their myths and, anchoring to myths is undertaken religiously. The religion is called nationalism’.

The culture of safety is no different. Removing zero or its myths is nearly impossible for an industry so deeply indoctrinated with its own belief system. Suggesting to remove zero to this industry is equated to the idea that you want people to die. Such is the power of the binary mythology that forms the foundation of the industry.

I always find it funny when I get lectured by Engineers on the nature of faith, belief and mythology. Apparently, uninformed Engineering is allowed to critique Religion but Religion is not allowed to critique Engineering. Such is the monodisciplinary nature of Safety. Apparently, I must compromise or collaborate by accepting the absolute of zero but Zero doesn’t have to move or meet in the middle with another view. Zero is of course the symbol of absolute perfection and infinity. There can be no movement or learning in zero.

So, some questions.

  1. What are the myth-symbols you and your organization believe in?
  2. What safety practices do you believe are effective? That ‘save’ lives?
  3. What processes do you consider non-negotiable?
  4. What symbols, rituals and myths are embedded in those processes?
  5. Can your risk assessment ritual remove the risk matrix?
  6. How is the symbol of the risk matrix used? How is it scientific?
  7. Why can’t the risk matrix be removed? What dos this symbolize?
  8. What does the risk matrix actually do?
  9. What other symbols are used in safety in your organization?
  10. What cultural belief do they represent?

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