What Ethic Drives Innovation in Safety?

Innovation in itself is not necessarily or inherently ‘good’. I’m sure the methods the Nazis innovated in the extermination camps were ‘new’ and ‘different’, efficient and effective.

When we visited Mauthausen this year and did a Semiotic Walk (See Figure 1. Group Outside of Mauthausen) we saw just how ‘innovative’ the Nazis were.

Figure 1. Group Outside of Mauthausen

If one reads the evolution of efficiency by the Nazis one realises that the economics of extermination was their number 1 priority. See Figure 2. Matt Thorne in the Gas Chamber.

Figure 2. Matt Thorne in the Gas Chamber

Everything that the Nazis innovated was about absolute efficiency (See Figure 3. The Body Part Sorting Table).

Figure 3. The Body Part Sorting Table

Afterall, the enemy of efficiency is waste. The Nazis wasted nothing.

Even the efficiencies of the parade ground, control systems and compliance at Mauthausen are extraordinary Figure 4. Parade Ground Mauthausen. Unless you have actually walked the grounds, felt the systems and seen the systems of efficiencies, you wouldn’t believe it.

Figure 4. Parade Ground Mauthausen

This is what Ellul calls the ideology of Technique, the quest for absolute efficiency. Ellul was in the French resistance in WW2 and knew the Nazis well. His works on Technique (https://ia803209.us.archive.org/2/items/JacquesEllulTheTechnologicalSociety/Jacques%20Ellul%20-%20The%20Technological%20Society.pdf) and Propaganda (https://monoskop.org/images/4/44/Ellul_Jacques_Propaganda_The_Formation_of_Mens_Attitudes.pdf), published in the 1960s are a must read for anyone interested in innovation.

Innovation for its own sake doesn’t make it ‘good’.

If the so called ‘innovation’ is not supported by an ethic of humanising persons, then it most likely serves another purpose like economic efficiency to the efficiency of a system. We see this in safety in lots of Human Factors stuff. Human Factors is not actually about humans but rather humans as a ‘factor’ in a system. This is how Technique works. It most often masks its hidden purpose with marketing of what it isn’t. The Nazis ensured compliance to walk into a gas chamber by calling them ‘showers’. Yes, they looked like showers but it wasn’t water that come out of the pipes. You can read about the innovation and evolution in Nazi Technique here: https://www.pbs.org/auschwitz/40-45/killing/

One of the biggest problems with the deontological ethic that drives Safety (https://safetyrisk.net/the-aihs-bok-and-ethics-check-your-gut/) is that it advocates a duty to safety not a duty to persons. When safety comes first, everything else becomes second.

I often see these safety award nights and promotions and often wonder; what ethic drives what is being rewarded. Apart from the fact that these reward events are based on behaviourist ideology, you never read anything about an ethic that guides them!

When a humanising ethic drives reward then a behaviourist ideology can make a small contribution to improvement. But rewards in themselves have a very limited shelf life and power.

An Ethic of Risk in SPoR is driven by resistance to Technique. Sometimes the best innovations in humanising persons are inefficient! Many of the methods in SPoR

(https://www.humandymensions.com/product/spor-and-semiotics/) are labour intensive and therefore inefficient. But when we see the outcomes of the quest for efficiency eg. using an AI chatbot for selection processes (https://safetyrisk.net/ai-priorities-and-the-creation-of-psychosocial-harm/) we see that in the end, persons are dehumanised and such an outcome proves costly into the future. Most of the silly efficiencies that are rewarded in safety only have a very short term effect.

Unless Safety looks at: long term trajectories, the psychology of goals, an ethic of risk and trade-offs in efficiencies then, whatever is innovated may not be ‘good’. Indeed, it could be both unethical and dehumanising, such is the problem of allowing the end to justify the means (https://safetyrisk.net/diamonds-are-safetys-best-friend/). Such is the problem when one allows the outcome (safety) to corrupt the process (tackling risk).

So, before one starts parading innovation in safety as naturally good, perhaps an articulated ethic of risk should accompany any claim to innovation.


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