Culture Silences in Safety – Ritual
Talking about ‘ritual’ in safety is a bit like talking about the war (see video below). Safety is so often noisy about petty risk and so silent about the many critical indicators of culture (https://safetyrisk.net/category/safety-culture-silences/ ). Just search for safety+culture+ritual and see what you find? About 3 entries. Then search for safety+checklists+injury and you get 36 million results.
In this series on culture silences in safety we find the answer to the question: ‘How can I affect culture change in safety?’ If you really want an answer to that question, then one needs to read the series and attend to these critical factors in culture.
The most important place to start is to get rid of the nonsense mantra ‘culture is what we do around here’.
I have written about ritual before:
If one was an anthropologist, sociologist, semiotician, ethnographer or social psychologist and wanted to find out about culture, the starting point for these disciplines is analysing ritual. Not so Safety.
In ritual, it is a bit of the ‘Chicken and egg’ paradox, which came first, the repetitive behaviour or the meaning attributed to it?
If you want to understand ritual then a starting reading list is here: https://safetyrisk.net/ritual-performance-and-risk/
Even though I have written before about ritual I have not emphasized its importance in relation to culture. But hold on you say, ritual is a behaviour so, it fits into the classic safety definition. But even that is far from the truth, ritualization, ritual and rites are much more than just behaviours. The trivialization of ritual and its importance is just one more weakness of an industry with its head in the mono-disciplinary cultural sand of risk.
Whether it’s your daily ritual of coffee, breakfast and catching a bus, making your bed or updating social media, your daily greeting at the newsagent, the way you shower in the morning, sexual encounter, or how one starts the working day, the way you say goodbye, your repetitive enactments of belief matter.
There are ritual displays of power in how we use space and place, availability, how we get food and at it, drinking and social drinking, applauding after a performance, even how we join and leave groups. All ritual embeds cultural code that says much more than the ritual act itself.
In all ritual, a certain ‘script’ must be followed that signals agreement and compliance. Similarly, breaking rituals can signify and parting of belief with the group. Following a ritual as a necessary sign of compliance is essential to military, juridical, medial and sacerdotal power. So to in safety.
Most ritual is heuristical, and performed unconsciously. How hard was it to stop shaking hands automatically during the pandemic? How hard was it to remember to mask up religiously when indoors?
I have previously defined ritual here in detail: https://safetyrisk.net/safety-as-ritual-performance/ and it is from this list of attributes Safety ought to consider its rituals in relation to culture, particularly rituals made sacred to performance and ‘saving lives’. This is not just applicable to ‘safety moments’ or ‘safety shares’ but even the ritualization of counting injury rates, completing a risk matrix and filling out a checklist.
Even though Safety is preoccupied with ‘safety culture’ (1.2 billion results on Google) and safety culture surveys (291 million results on Google) it remains silent on ritual as foundational to understanding culture.
Indeed, the only place where you will find any discussion, definition and constructive discussion of ritual, culture and safety is on this blog site.
Instead, in safety we get stuff like this (https://risk-engineering.org/concept/safety-culture; https://proactsafety.com/blog-posts/is-safety-culture-misleading; https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.456.1847&rep=rep1&type=pdf ) that asserts safety culture is ‘confusing’ and ‘contentious’. Of course, if you want to be confused about culture, ask an engineer.
The many silences in safety about critical elements of culture, demonstrate that Safety keeps looking in the wrong place to find the lost pearl of wisdom (https://safetyrisk.net/wisdom-based-safety/).