Breaking the Safety Code

imageWhat is the Safety code? Safety code is the in-group code to sell products. Once in-group-demand is assured then buying silver bullets seems a positive economic outcome, in the name of safety.

I see recently the chance to learn about safety ‘code breaking’ but not the in-group code but rather the confirmation bias code, packaged in all the best spin about psychosocial high reliability organisations with efficiency, quality and injury rates: NSCA Webinar: Code Breaker – Creating highly reliable workplaces with exceptional safety, efficiency and quality.

Of course, Karl Weick disowned the notion of High Reliability Organisations (HROs) and regretted the way it had been misused by Safety. There is no High Reliability Organisation (HRO), there is only High Reliability Organising (HROing). Similarly, Edgar Schein regretted what Safety did to his work on culture. (I wonder if Reason ever regrets thinking up the nonsense swiss-cheese?) Hey but this is Safety, let’s not bother about mythology getting in the way of selling a Safety product.

Whenever you need to market a product in safety it’s pretty much a formula to start with injury rates and regulation. This is always how Safety Work Australia open any discussion. This is the instant magnet for the Safety sell.

In this piece (endorsed by the NSCA), the so-called ‘code’ is mystically what HROs do and this is what unlocks the code. As there is no such thing as a HRO I guess you just make s#@t up. This is what Safety does so well, and throw in language and myths that attract the in-group to the promise of, more of the same. Nothing wins over the in-group like the language of ‘heroes’ and ‘playbooks’ and so the marketing is complete. It’s like telling people that fallible organisations and people that they can ‘drift into failure’, from what?

And what is the ‘hero code’? A ‘powerful set of guiding principles for leaders’ ( And what are the principles? The same stuff you had last time. Considering there is no such thing as an HRO, then the ‘hero code’ is the code to what?

The reality is, the last thing safety needs is ‘hero code champions’ and if Safety needs a code-breaking mechanism to be safe then, why is this so? Is safety that complex that we need to buy products to discover the safety secret?

The reality is, there is no code in understanding the work of Karl Weick ( the founder of the Social Psychology of Organising in 1969. I wonder how many in safety have actually read his founding book (second edition): The Social Psychology of Organising? (

The second edition of his book is essential reading for any safety person. (I must say, I was delighted in 2015 to receive Karl’s personal endorsement of all my work in SPoR – SPoR Handbook   p150).

If you were to read Karl’s books you would realise that what Weick developed is antithetical to most of what is practiced in safety today. The work of SPoR resonates strongly the Karl’s pioneering work. In the second edition of The Social Psychology of Organising, Prof. Weick tears to shreds most of the nonsense that is about today in causality and safety. But what would Wieck know, applying Social Psychology to the challenges of risk? Ah no, but it’s a secret and you need to code to be a hero.

And here we are 50 years later and still Safety has absolutely no interest in the Social Psychology of Risk (SPoR) or the pioneering work of Weick. Indeed, most of the work I see about safety that claims to be based on Weick, is not. Much of it is mis-attribution to Weick to suit the behaviourist and engineering bias of safety spin. Most of it is a selective grab-bag of snippets of Weick with little knowledge of his body of work. Moreso, if you were to use Weick to criticise Safety, that would put you on the out-group because critical thinking in Social Psychology is antithetical to safety. Such criticism is just about aggression and anger, it has no substance. Perhaps that’s why Safety needs a code? Because it doesn’t read.

A foundation in Social Psychology is essential in understanding HROing and the work of Prof. Karl Weick. Without such an understanding it is relatively easy to bend Weick to attribute what Safety wants to say. In this way it is easy to sell traditional safety products that Weick would never endorse.

In SPoR, we offer a practical, positive and constructive study of Prof. Karl Weick (without secrets, codes or spin) (, including a range of practical tools based on Karl’s work to help tackle risk.

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