Creating Myths and Rituals in Safety

The test of how ‘religious’ someone is about anything is to see what they can do without or compromise on (what they make sacred or taboo).

Just ask a sports fan to take down their poster of their favourite team. Just suggest to someone that something they are attached to and anchored to, be taken away.

Religious observance is measured by: commitment to something, adoration, belief in a ‘saving’ value, attachment to happiness and meaning, making something a ‘god’ and anchoring to myths, rituals and semiotics associated with a practice. Humans can be ‘religious’ about anything: a footy team, a political party, a system, a person or an object.

Understanding religion is the foundation for understanding culture. Except in the risk and safety industry such study and interest must be avoided. No text I know of that speaks of ‘safety culture’ makes any mention nor seeks an understanding of religion. And so, all definitions about on so called ‘safety culture’ are deficient.

Silence about religion in Safety enables the most astounding religiosity in safety ( It also fosters the most naïve denial about religiosity and astounding ignorance about how culture works.

Whenever Safety talks about culture it usually is just code for behaviours and systems.

But first to a fun story.

I was riding in a took took in Chennai last week and experienced this test of religiosity. I jumped in a took took and first thing I noticed were the icons placed by the driver: See Figures 1 Shiva Head Height and 2 Shiva on Dash.

Figure 1. Shiva Head Height


Figure 2. Shiva on Dash


This is not unusual. Indeed, there is nowhere one can go in Chennai without the placement of a god/icon/symbol. Gods were placed as brass icons on every level and corner of my motel, they were on every doorway in the organisation I was working with and, all over the streets as small shrines. This is without any focus on temples or churches.

Indeed, I found one shrine where all three prominent gods (Christian, Hindu and Islam) were on offer, so you could take your pick. See Figure 3. All Three Gods.

Figure 3. All Three Gods


I also discovered why slip on and off footwear is so common in Chennai. You may never know when you are about to go on ‘holy ground’ and need to take your shoes off. (I regretted not packing thongs very quickly).

But back to the took took ride. It is hard to describe the traffic in Chennai. Even though lanes are marked on the highway, they are irrelevant. Even though there are rules signs everywhere, they are irrelevant. Even though there are restrictions about passengers etc in vehicles and on vehicles, they are irrelevant. So, travelling in a took took down a 7 lane highway means at least 9-11 wide traffic or more. To an outsider it feels like chaos but to an insider it works. In 10 days of travelling 3 hours each day in the traffic I saw no evidence of an accident. I saw no evidence of anger or road rage like we get in my small city (350,000) in Canberra. Just toot your horn, announce your presence and move.

So, as we are hurtling down this 7 lane highway zipping in and out of everything, the wind picked up and blew the dash icon out of the took took and onto the ground. See Figure 4. No icon. Compare Figure 2 with Figure 4. I happened to take a picture just at the right moment but there is no space here to show you the video. What blew away was a small piece of cardboard with a picture on it. To me, a worthless piece of cardboard.

Figure 4. No icon.


Not for the driver.

What happened next is amazing.

He couldn’t speak English but gestured for me to stay while he stopped the took took in the middle of the traffic chaos. He hopped out of his took took and walked back through the traffic about 10 metres and found his image, picked it up and came back into to took took. He then proceeded driving (one handed) attempting to make the image stick again with sticky tape in the same place but it wouldn’t stick. Of course, this is why it blew away in the first place. So, he worked out how to jam it down in place and our trip proceeded.


What has any of this got to do with safety culture? Everything.

If you want to find out the myths and rituals of Safety, just try to take them away. Suggest to Safety that you take away zero, the swiss-cheese or the silly coloured risk matrix. You will soon find out about safety as a religion. After all, ‘Safety saves’.

If you are blind to the religiosity of Safety you will never understand its culture. I know, let’s not talk about it (Busch) there’s the solution.

If you want to know about the religiosity of safety start by reading a bit of Mary Douglas (an Anthropologist), not some goop from a safety engineer. Try reading these:

When you believe that ‘safety saves’ you are already in a religion or a cult. The study of salvation is called ‘soteriology’.

Whatever is performed for safety becomes efficacious for salvation ( and if you don’t do what is done, you will surely die. This is how religions create conditionality to the beliefs of the religion. This is how processes, systems, beliefs, artefacts, symbols, rituals, myths and rites are made sacred. Then try to take any of them away.

The level of resistance to this test of taking something away then becomes your measure of religious commitment to the myth and ritual.

There is no difference in any of this between the took took driver and sacred safety myths that pervade the safety industry. Many of which don’t work! These are mostly concocted by an engineering worldview that attributes value to pyramids, curves, swiss-cheese, matrices and bow-ties that are made (attributed) sacred.

The most effective way to ensure the making of a sacred myth is to see what happens when you deny the sacred.

The most effective way to empower a ritual is to deny it is a ritual.

Once you put that safety moment before a meeting, you will never get rid of it. It is then made a test of the sacredness of safety.

Once you invoke zero in an organisation you will never get rid of it, because it is now a measure of safety commitment. And, if you are anti zero, you are anti-safety.

This is what results from the staggering ignorance and silence about religion in safety culture. Look for it in any so-called book on ‘safety culture’ and if you don’t find it, then you know the book is NOT about culture.

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