Can There Be Other Valid Worldviews Than Safety?

Originally posted on June 17, 2019 @ 6:56 PM

Can There Be Other Valid Worldviews Than Safety?

safety worldviewThis is the challenge worldviews is the challenge of the unknown unknowns. How can I know another worldview, when all I know is my own? Can there be a different view of the world other than the lens I use to see it? Could it be that another worldview that is antithetical to my own, could have just as valid a claim to knowledge? How can I know another worldview without experiencing it?

All these questions challenge the future of the safety industry whose worldview is principally STEM-only (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) knowing and positivistic philosophy. This is easily demonstrated by analysis of the SIA Body of Knowledge that is 80% technical in nature.

The dictionary defines positivism as: ‘a philosophical system recognizing only that which can be scientifically verified or which is capable of logical or mathematical proof, and therefore rejecting metaphysics and theism’. Moreso, the commitment of STEM to associated worldviews of behaviourism, cognitvism and rationalism reject out of hand disciplines that cannot verify evidence in the same way as defined by scientism. See further:

This doesn’t mean that the evidence of non-STEM views are invalid, it’s just that non-STEM knowing doesn’t fit the way scientism/positivism defines knowledge. Therefore, any assertion that faith, intuition or embodied knowing is valid must be rejected. Whilst it never used to be so, it is now asserted by scientism that faith and reason are opposed to each other in binary oppositionalism. This is fascinating because one can’t talk about certainty in human fallible knowing without discussing ‘leaps of faith’ in risk.

One of the historical benchmarks of the disciplines is the creation of boundary objects that limit cross-disciplinary flow, understanding and collaboration. This is the purpose of professionalization. We experience this whenever we consult a doctor, lawyer, nurse, social worker or teacher. Once something is professionalized it creates its own politics of difference. This occurs in: discourse, language, models, symbols, anthropology, ideology/methodology, methods and sub-culture. The professionalization of a class or group of people creates political and social power. This can then be traded off against the other professions when that profession wants to exercise political power.

Remember going to that parent-teacher night and wondering why you didn’t understand what the teacher was talking about? Know what its like visiting the doctor and understanding that they know more about your own body than yourself? Ever been bitten by a lawyer who knows how to charge a fortune because you don’t understand their world?

It’s like we need interpreters between the professions just so they can speak to each other. Professionalization focuses on what separates the disciplines rather than what they share in common. The dynamics of professionalization were discussed in my paper ‘Professional Challenges for the Safety Industry’ ( This is why I have been calling for risk and safety to take a transdisciplinary focus on risk (; ). It is also why the industry needs an ‘ethic of risk’.

If tackling risk is ever going to transcend across the professions then risk and safety people need to be trained as generalists not as a professionalized class of experts who cannot translate to other professions.

A Personal Journey…..

I first encountered the risk and safety industry in 2003 after having undertaken a number of careers in various professions in the previous 32 years. In each of these professions I had belonged to unique associations with their own: discourse, bodies of knowledge, worldview, language, anthropology, symbolism and qualifications for entry. Then when I first encountered the risk and safety world I realized very quickly that I shared very little in common. I deliberately undertook a Masters in WHS so I could validate my understanding of the safety industry’s theory and practice.

I came into the risk and safely industry through an organization that wanted to develop a research and training division. My experiences and qualifications in education, learning, teaching and the psychology of learning were what were wanted. From the start of my time in this organization I discovered I was out of step with the risk and safety ideology of the founder, particularly associated with: the ethics of education, the tyranny of fundamentalism, scientism, positivism, immature understanding of learning, fixation with behaviourism and technique amongst many other things.

What was even more bizarre was the fact that the founder had no awareness of: ideology, philosophy, ethics, learning, education, semiotics, language or anthropology. It was like risk and safety was considered this kind of neutral beast that didn’t have to give an account of itself to anyone. Of course I quickly fell out of favour because I asked questions, and questions were considered anathema to risk and safety compliance. The culture was about: here are the rules, police the rules and punish dissent. Moreso, my questions themselves challenged the boundaries of the discipline of risk and safety were interpreted as: troublemaking, disobedience, crazy and ‘wacked’.

The idea that people could think differently outside of the closed system of positivism was anathema. My questioning of the risk and safety worldview was met with heightened defensiveness as if all repositories of knowledge were contained in the risk and safety industry. How could one dare question the assumptions of behaviourism? How could one perceive the language of risk and safety as a religious discourse? How could one question the ideology of zero? Surely, I had come from another planet and need to be demonized? Surely my questions were a deliberate attack on the credibility of safety? How could you question the Bradley Curve, Heinrich’s Pyramid or Reason’s cheese??? Surely I was being deliberately obstreperous and disruptive? It couldn’t possibly be that there was any validity in my worldview, research or questioning. It couldn’t possibly be that there was another worldview that was valid but completely foreign to the assumptions of this risk industry.

I had a similar experience when I was recently asked to undertake a two day workshop at Monash University with final year Engineering students. The resistance to what I presented, how I presented and the body of knowledge I presented but anathema. Only 50% of participants returned for the second day. The discipline of engineering and its assumptions about humans must not be questioned.

When I decided to question the mythology of the risk and safety industry I discovered that I had more in common with the legal profession that I did with risk and safety. Lawyers understand: social politics, language, archtypes, semiotics, discourse, jurisprudence, ethics and philosophy. I guess this is why the 3 days of conversations with Greg Smith went without a hitch ( ). Lawyers understand that questioning and debate is the foundation for discovery, learning, creativity and critical thinking. None of this is abnormal indeed, it is considered essential.

When I wrote the allegory of the Kingdom of Norom ( ) I was trying to explain just how foreign the discipline of risk and safety was. How could an industry globally deny fallibility? In what land of denial could an industry propose perfectionism as normal?

How Could it be?

The first step in change is the realization that one needs to change. The second step is knowing what is limited and closed and having a method to transcend those limits. The third step is the courage to question and dissent and not being fearful of imagination, creativity and learning. The fourth step to change is entering into dialectic, that in-between space where the validity of the other is acknowledged. From then on its all about suspending agenda, conversation and discovery. Who knows, maybe the future/vision that Safety is looking for could be found outside of its own fortress.

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