The Risk Matrix Myth

There are many other ways of knowing that could be offered in Safety other than those of science, engineering and behaviourism. One’s worldview is one’s bias, especially when it comes to the construction of models as myths in safety. There is no such thing as non-bias or non-prejudice when it comes to safety, science and engineering. As a start these are basic reading:

Let’s start with some basics.

All models are semiotic representations of something. The model or graphic is NOT the thing in itself.

All models are like metaphors, they seek to describe something by what it is not (Lakoff and Johnson).

All models are constructed by someone for a purpose and are either useful, helpful or ethical depending on their outcome. Without some level of critical thinking the purpose of such models often remains hidden.

So, any graphic, whether drawn in science, engineering or safety is not the thing in itself but a representation of it. Such a representation is an interpretation of a concept or idea.

To understand graphical representation, symbolism, associated mythology and bias one would need to study Semiotics. In Semiotics one leaves behind the assumptions of science to embrace a new way of knowing. In Semiotics one leaves behind the myths of ‘scientific method’ to understand other ways of knowing – Transdisciplinary ways of knowing.

  • The moment Science moves to metaphor to express meaning it requires some expertise in Linguistics to understand the use of language
  • The moment one moves to myth and symbol one needs metaphysical, philosophical and anthropological knowledge to understand what is being communicated.
  • The moment one moves into religious metaphor and the language of ‘faith’ one needs theological knowing to understand what one is saying.
  • The moment one moves into models, iconic expression, sign systems and symbols, one needs Semiotic expertise to know what one is doing.
  • The moment one moves into expression by model or metaphor one needs some expertise in Ethics and moral philosophy to help work out if its outputs are ethical or helpful.
  • To understand the philosophy of interpretation one would need to be somewhat familiar with the notion of Hermeneutics.

All these forms of knowing are NOT known to the Safety industry. Hence Safety quite readily adopts myths such as the Risk Matrix and then assumes it is objective, Scientific and rational. It is none of these.

When it comes to understanding myth, models, Linguistics and Semiotics one cannot use a monodisciplinary paradigm to understand something that requires a Transdisciplinary worldview. This is why Linkedin lights up to any challenge to a safety myth ( and protests expertise in mythology without any expertise in it.

If one is not studied in these diverse ways of knowing, then one is trying to apply a known paradigm to an unknown paradigm.

The reality is, knowledge in risk and safety that emerges from its narrow curriculum reveals inexperience in diverse transdisciplinary ways of knowing or learning.

For example, the myth of a ‘scientific method’ only makes sense within the assumptions of a singular assumption of what science is. So, let’s recap:

  • No models in safety are scientific
  • Graphic representations are representations, they are not the thing they represent
  • Graphic models are symbols
  • All symbols are interpreted
  • All symbols generate myths
  • Myths are neither objective or true

The real question then is: Is the model helpful or ethical?

Let’s look at the myth of the Risk Matrix. See Figure 1. Risk Matrix.

Figure 1. Risk Matrix.


If you do a search on Google for ‘Risk Matrix’ one finds over 300 million results matched by endless iterations of versions of the Risk Matrix.

The one pictured above seeks to explain risk using colours in a square ‘matrix’ and even has so called ‘qualitative’ and ‘quantitative’ descriptors of what each line represents.

Of course, the Linguistics and interpretation of each line of the ‘quantitative’ measures is not quantitative but qualitative. All descriptors are subjective as are how one locates a number on the matrix, that doesn’t represent actual risk, because risk cannot be quantified.

None of this is ‘scientific’. Indeed, Greg Smith as a lawyer calls the matrix ‘one of the most dangerous tools’ in the risk and safety industry (, ‘unmitigated gobbeldygook’.

4. DUE DILIGENCE from Human Dymensions on Vimeo.

And in will come safety to defend the indefensible. Why? Sunk cost, indoctrination, lack of critical thinking and religious mythology. So, some key questions:

  • Would Safety be better off without this object? Yes.
  • Is this model dangerous? Yes.
  • Does the model lead to the making of a myth? Yes.
  • Is the model used to make absurd judgments? Yes.
  • Is the model used to hide risk? Yes.
  • Is the model scientific? No.
  • Will safety be able to dump the object? No.
  • Are there better models that could be used in its place? Absolutely.
  • Does safety want to explore such possibilities? No.

Why broaden horizons, when behaviourism will do.

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