Visualising the EHS Role

Visual/verbal knowing is not something that Safety does well. Many of the models and graphics used in Safety are poorly constructed, linear and simplistic. The Swiss-cheese for example, is the kind of graphic enjoyed by many in Safety but it simply misleading about how incidents occur, how events unfold and how humans make judgements and decisions.

Visual/verbal knowing is best developed through the study and practice of Semiotics. There is no study or practice of semiotics in risk across the globe except in SPoR.

Semiotic knowing extends way beyond the limits of propositional and conceptual definition common in safety. This is why so many in safety misunderstand the nature of culture and advise not to talk about it (Busch, Hopkins etc). You can’t understand art using a slide rule or algorithms.

The oldest continuing culture in the world is the Australian Indigenous culture (; This culture never developed text as a way of knowing, it is a visual verbal culture. There is much we could learn about culture from this culture. Stories, myths, legends, knowing, culture and being have always been transmitted in Australian First Nations people, verbally and visually without text or numerics.

At the heart of First Nations Peoples of Australia is the mandala, the ancient expression of balance and community common to many cultures ( See an example here: Figure 1. Australian First Nations Peoples Mandala

Figure 1. Australian First Nations Peoples Mandala


This kind of mandala is often used to express: corroboree, community, presence around the fire, balance, leadership, conversation, personhood and knowing ( Such knowing cannot be communicated conceptually or through propositions.

When white people first came to Australia and deemed it was Terra Nullius. Indigenous First Nations peoples were not identified as ‘civilized’ because their language lacked text and other forms of intelligence deemed a measure of civilization by the colonizers. In this was the Indigenous people were disposed of their land, their culture was demonised and myths substituted for western myths.

This is what a fixation with measurement does. All it does is seek to validate its own assumptions and never questions those assumptions. We see that so often in the risk and safety industry, yet risk cannot be measured nor quantified. Of course, this never stops Safety from asserting that measures like injury rates have meaning, when they have none.

In SPoR, we often use mandala knowing to help people visualise the tensions they experience in tackling risk. This is also part of how conversations, dialogue and dialectic are part of methods used in skill development in SPoR. The purpose of such conversations and visual knowing is to seek balance. This is always the case in SPoR. There is no balance in zero or the many myths and rituals safety maintains as meaningful, mostly constructs and attributions from engineering and scientism.

Recently in the Ethics Workshop ( ) we asked participants to use this form (mandala) of knowing to visualise the tasks and role of their work and also the tensions, trade-offs and by-products experienced in doing their work in safety. The following mandala (Figure 2. Safety Mandala) is so effective it prompted this blog.


Figure 2. Safety Mandala


The first thing I noticed about this mandala is the swirling nature, as if it swirls into a never ending vortex. I know many people in safety who describe their job as thus. The next thing I noticed is that none of the activity positioned in the mandala has any connection to anything that SPoR considers significant. Everything in the mandala is object-centric NOT person-centric. The Chemical Engineer who drew this mandala thanked me for the education journey in SPoR and for enlightening him to other ways of knowing than safety-knowing.

There is much more to this mandala that I will leave up to you to decipher. One of the beauties of mandala is their subjectivity, dialectic and openness. They enable meditation, reflection and contemplation on the tensions in living and being. I particularly liked this mandala (and I have hundreds of SPoR examples) because it captures so wonderfully the conundrum of ‘being’ in safety.

By way of contrast one can see a completely different focus in Figure 3. Safety Mandala

Figure 3. Safety Mandala


None of this is either ‘good’ or bad’ but rather a way of seeing the world, a way of understanding living and being in risk from differing perspectives. Both views are valid just as there are other valid worldviews than the engineering worldview or the behaviourist worldview.

BY engaging in alternative worldviews one has a better chance of enacting balance in the way one tackles risk. Far away from the binary fundamentalism of safety and zero.

If you want to learn more about any of this you can attend the workshops in Vienna or Canberra later this year.

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