Sanctimonious Safety

Originally posted on February 17, 2018 @ 9:09 AM

Sanctimonious Safety

health and safety man‘Sorry I’m late’ was the excuse from John, ‘ I was held up wiping the arses of morons’. Such was the response from a safety manager this week. I had been waiting for over an hour for him to show up. Then when he finally showed up, I was stunned by what I heard. Is this the cultural normalisation of safety in this tier one organisation, I thought? Apparently so. I was the only one in the group who questioned what he said. OMG, how lucky is that workforce to have a safety hero on site. And people wonder why Safety is hated?
What an amazing way to view others and the world. The sanctimony of Safety manufactured by years of zero harm and perfection language has promoted this discourse. If you keep speaking zero to people then any evidence of fallibility must be derided and persecuted. No wonder the enemy of safety is fallibility.

Unfortunately, I hear this kind of language often. But John went on, ‘Everyone hates safety’ he said, ‘but I know I am saving lives’ was his retort. My jaw usually doesn’t move but no one else in the room was surprised. It seems that safety effectiveness is not measured in LTIs but fallibility hate points. Since when did Safety learn to hate fallible humans so much? (Free download of my latest book Fallibility and Risk, Living with Uncertainty is here:
Amazing that one can know so much about risk, organising and people from a narrow objects-focused safety curriculum? Where did this come from? Why is it that Safety creates such sanctimony that fills the airwaves with safety mythology as reality? Why is it that Safety has been made the shibboleth of life? Where did this ‘everyone is a moron except me’ come from? Is there a special curriculum unit in WHS called ‘sanctimony studies’ I have not heard of?

The word ‘sanctimonious’ comes from the idea of sanctity and the sacred. When one speaks the language of infallibility to people no wonder safety becomes sanctimonious. We often associate the idea of being sanctimonious with being ‘holier-than-thou’. This translates to a discourse I heard from John of: ‘every worker is defiled except me’. If you want to know more about culture and defilement and taboo then the excellent work of Mary Douglas is downloadable here:

With such language as ‘toward zero’ we can now understand every road accident as an act of defilement ( This is despite the fact that truck fatalities increased by 86% ( and road fatalities by 10% ( Hey, but who cares, lets just keep speaking nonsense to people! It is because the language of zero is about absolute perfection that every statistic of non-conformance must be interpreted as a ‘blemish’ and ‘stain’ against the righteous.

Regardless of church tradition, there are no saints – just fallible humans. People in Australia have seen some of this played out this week in the narrative surrounding the Deputy Prime Minister ( Sanctity and hypocrisy out of the mouths of people in safety helps no-one.

So what does this sanctimonious safety ‘wipe their arses’ discourse do?

  1. It drives alienation between the workforce and people in safety.
  2. It de-professionalizes safety discourse.
  3. It turns fallibility into taboo and defilement.
  4. It infuses deep religious language into the way Safety speaks.
  5. It perpetuates the myth that safety can only be delivered by a certain class of people.
  6. It turns people in safety into Pharisees and lovers of compliance not ownership and thinking.

  7. It makes Safety a cult.

  8. It teaches workers not to listen to safety language.

  9. It teaches workers that people in safety are ‘wankers’.

  10. It embeds zero and numeric as the filter for safety reasoning.

Hey I made the sacred ten. I think that matches many of the Cardinal Tens about tier one’s that also fuel safety sanctimony.

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