You Might Not Be Paying Attention, But Your Semiotic Unconscious Is

Even when Safety uses words like ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’ these are located within the behaviourist/materialist/positivist framework of safety orthodoxy. There is never any discussion of semiotics or the unconscious. Even when Safety talks about ‘awareness’, ‘carefulness’, ‘consciousness’ and ‘perception’ it’s never about the human or collective unconscious. When Safety wants to know something, it is always knowing within the safe monodisciplinary bounds of engineering, science and behaviourism. This is how one can claim to be innovative and have a ‘new view’ and at the same time sustain all the traditional language of safety, including affirmation of zero as a ‘science’ (

Of course, there are ways of thinking about risk outside of the safety bubble. There are innovative and creative ways of thinking beyond the behaviourist cocoon of safety. When one embraces Transdisciplinary knowing then one can see ways of knowing beyond the confines of safety orthodoxy. This is what a study in SPoR offers ( a positive, constructive, practical and innovative approach to tackling risk so that persons matter.

The reality is, if its comfortable and safe, it’s probably not innovative. If it’s attractive to Safety there’s probably little creativity.

As an example, we saw recently an innovative approach to psychosocial harm in the workplace at Adelaide Hospital.

In this situation, employees were faced with sexist and bullying, in behaviour and language from surgeons. Such psychosocial harm is not uncommon. However, what this story demonstrates is that a simple semiotic strategy brought about change.

It also demonstrates that when you know what you are doing (in semiotics) and take the human unconscious seriously, there can be change. In Safety we most often see semiotic intelligence ignored and dismissed. For example, Women in Safety using a stiletto as an icon ( or an icon of a punching fist on brick wall ( as somehow relevant to safety. Both semiotics are the opposite of safety. Both semiotics violate the very fundamentals of human ethical and moral responsibility. And neither seek any expertise in semiotics.

In this case, an innovative semiotic approach was taken by a researcher from the University of South Australia. Cheri Ostroff put up eye images attached to the walls of an Adelaide orthopaedic hospital without any explanation to staff. This lack of explanation is critical. If Safety was involved it would have to tell everyone about the strategy and thereby turn the experiment into a behaviourist exercise. When one assumes the brain is a computer that has to be re-set by rationalist-cognitivist means then, whatever follows is usually presented as a lecture. Telling is the safety way.

The group that saw these posters we interviewed in a before and after process and what was discovered was remarkable to the workplace but unremarkable to anyone studied in Semiotics.

Seven weeks after the posters were placed there was a noticeable difference in the culture of the workplace. Theatre nurses in particular reported a significant drop in experiencing offensive and rude remarks. The full study is published HERE

In the study of Semiotics (within the Discipline of SPoR) we are not surprised by such levels of influence. There are thousands of examples in research in Semiotics and Social Psychology that demonstrate the same. In the case of this research from Adelaide, we know that this will not bring lasting cultural change without a full Transdisciplinary approach and understanding of Semiotics, Poetics and Culture. Unfortunately, these are of no interest to Safety. Most books published on culture in safety, and even those that tell you NOT to talk about culture, are NOT about culture. It seems the best way to learn about culture in safety is to ask an engineer.

We also know from research in SPoR ( that the semiotics of Zero works mostly in the unconscious and collective unconscious space. This would help explain why all the ideology of zero in road safety marketing doesn’t work ( The semiotics of zero that gets picked up by the unconscious drives the opposite of what safety wants and desires. Most semiotics in safety work this way and help explain the ineffectiveness of many safety campaigns particularly, campaigns based on zero and behaviourism.

Unless there is congruence between the conscious and unconscious, most safety strategies simply don’t work. This is why the first step to improve safety is to abandon zero and importantly, NOT declare it as some authenticated science! (

In SPoR, we see when organisations abandon zero – safety improves ( We also know that when organisations jettison zero, safety works ( This is why SPoR has so thoroughly documented its semiotic approach ( and why SPoR has such lasting effects on culture change in organisations. And all of this is for free download!

Until Safety takes seriously the many Transdisciplinary realities outside of its own echo chamber, it’s not likely we will see much innovation or creativity in safety.


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