Myth and Symbols in Safety

imageA myth is not a fairy tale or fiction but a false belief made true by ‘anchoring‘ to a symbol. Myths/symbols are not historically or scientifically true but are made true by the mythical proposition of the symbol.

We saw this in the last blog about posture. Despite dozens of safety text books that confirm the myth of posture, none of it is true.

What happens in myth is that a certain proposition is proposed (eg. bad posture develops back pain) and then a symbol is placed against that proposition that projects a matching logic. The logic is of course not true but establishes its own truth.

In a similar way we see projected ‘truths’ of linearity and causality with the swiss cheese (Reason), hierarchy of risk (Bird and Heinrich), domino theory (Heinrich) and the supposed ‘hierarchy of control’. All of these are constructed models that seek to explain something, most often from an undeclared bias in behaviourism or scientism.

All these myths seek to place order on disorder, structure on randomness, certainty on uncertainty and systemic structure where there is none.

Most of the models and semiotics in risk and safety are mythology.

I have discussed this previously:

There are five types of myth:

  1. Rational myth is where myths are constructed to explain natural events. An example are creation myths that are used to try and explain the inexplicable. No-one was around at the dawn of the universe so stories like Adam and Eve in the garden are typical.
  2. Functional myth is used to help teach moral imperatives constructed culturally. For example, Dreamtime stories in Indigenous Culture helps moderate moral conformance.
  3. Structural myth is based on human emotion and tends to show a dialectical understanding of forces eg. Greek and Roman gods
  4. Semiotic myth is when symbols and sign systems convey meaning and purpose anchored to a constructed logic. Eg. Risk management systems that are symbolised.
  5. Psychological myth tend to represent unconscious beliefs and superstitions. For example, Archetypes in the collective unconscious usually associated with emotions and justice.

One of the best at explaining mythology was Paul Ricoeur. This paper ought to be foundational reading for any safety person.

The best books by Ricoeur on myth/symbol are Fallible Man  and The Symbolism of Evil. Ricoeur is challenging reading for most unless versed in his work with a sense of theology and hermeneutics.

When we examine myth/symbol we need to look at their affect. What need does the myth fulfil and normalise?

One way to understand myth/symbolism is to look at a practical example ‘Simpson and the Donkey’ ( None of the information that surround this myth is factually or historically true (Wilson, G., (2012) Dust Donkeys and Delusions, The Myth of Simpson and his Donkey. Big Sky Publishing. Newport. ).

Yet the myths and symbols of the Simpson and the Donkey myth are astounding, powerful, political and untruthful. This then becomes constructed as true and then foundational to indoctrinate a population so that the myth becomes its own truth. For example, here are the opening lines of a teaching material for school children in the UK (

‘The story of Simpson and his donkey is an extraordinary tale of courage in the face of extreme danger, of an ordinary “bloke” doing what he could at immense risk to his own life. There are arguments about how much the story has been embellished over the years, but nevertheless the simple heroism of John Simpson has come to symbolise the “Aussie” spirit and made him a household name.’

None of this is true.

But because we want heroes and examples of selfless courage, we construct such myths. This is how populations construct legends such as ‘safety heroes’ that ‘save lives’.

Any study of Historiography demonstrates how such myths are created ( In a similar way many safety investigations are constructed against indoctrinated myths eg, that events are linear, rational and logical. As such myths/models in safety serve as a ‘’frame of reference that is unquestioned, lorded and normalised in the name of ‘compliance’. But none of it is real or true

None of this is likely to be understood without a background in Semiotics, Linguistics, History, Theology, Hermeneutics, Anthropology, Social Psychology, Deconstruction, Critical Thinking, Sociology, Philosophy or Cultural Theory. Unfortunately, none of these are thought to have any relevance to the study of safety, hence the addiction of Safety to the mythology of behaviourism and the mono-disciplinary ideology of Engineering.

It is only in a Transdisciplinary approach to learning ( that one could tackle the challenges of how myth/symbol command the ideology of risk and safety (

One of the tasks of the Social Psychology of Risk (SPoR) is the ‘demystify’ and demythologise the ‘myths of safety’. Greg Smith does similar in his work on the myths of safety, from a legal view (Everything is Green: The delusion of health and safety reporting). Greg quite rightly describes these as ‘delusions’. This from a lawyer with over 200 prosecutions in safety.

Greg and I will be presenting on these myths in our Due Diligence program, soon to be delivered in Perth (

So, in an effort to help deconstruct myth/symbol I offer the following questions:

  • What is the nature of the common models normalised in safety?
  • What narrative is connected to these models?
  • What is the proposition of the myth?
  • What symbol/s are anchored to it?
  • How is the myth anchored to the symbol?
  • What Archetype/force/energy is at ‘work’ in the myth?
  • What ‘truth’ is projected?
  • What historical evidence supports the myth?
  • How is the myth placed in a culture?
  • What rituals are anchored to the myth?
  • What gestures are anchored to the myth?
  • What beliefs does the myth protect/defend?
  • How is the myth politicised?
  • Who receives the power embedded in the myth?
  • Who is the custodian of the myth?

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