The Seduction to Simplify Safety

by Dr Rob Long on July 26, 2014

in Psychology of Safety and Risk,Robert Long,Work Method Statements

The Seduction to Simplify Safe Work Method Statements

imageEveryone knows that we are already in an age of excess in safety. This is the dilemma of optimisation. Some now talk about ‘ultra-safety’ organisations and wonder how much more they can do and say in the name of safety. How much does one have to do and say to demonstrate they are ‘safe’? Then there are those who reject ‘complicatedness’ (confused with complexity) and propose rules for simplification but in so doing still maintain a rationalist discourse (so the language will change but not the distribution of power). If one’s world is all about logical analytical decision making (eg. in safe work method statements or risk assessments) then, you are already ‘flooded’. The surprise is that the logical rationalist space is not where we make most of our decisions.

On 4 September 2014 in the ACT the Regulator is holding a breakfast on ‘Swimming Without Drowning – How to Comply With Safe Work Method Statements (SWMS)’. Whilst I understand the drive for the breakfast (uniformity in SWMS format) it nevertheless endorses the mythology that the ‘golden calf’ of safety is a SWMS. Where are the breakfasts on understanding risk, the psychology of goals, flooding in safety and human decision making? Whilst the regulator wants to emphasise the simplicity of SWMS at the same time endorses the priority of SWMS. Whilst it might be good to simplify SWMS, when are we going to get over the worship of SWMS? I’m not suggesting that SWMS should be complex rather, a fixation on SWMS is a distraction from effectively discerning risk.

It is a seduction to think that human complexity can be simplified. It is seductive to propose rules for simplification and in so doing hide complexity in the simplification process. It is simple to say: ‘our decisions are made in the unconscious and by heuristics’. But, think of all that is embedded in that statement. Weick tells us in his work on Collective Mindfulness that one of the essentials is ‘reluctance to simplify’. Yet, the quest to simplify continues to thrive in the safety industry. Norretranders tells us that exformation (what is left out in our efforts to simplify) is just as important and information. Effective leading and following is not about simplifying, we should be suspicious of the simplification discourse.

One can look at some prescriptive outline of how to do a SWMS and have no idea of how to discern risk. As long as we have the SWMS in place to the expectations of the regulator, isn’t our arse covered? Ha? No it’s not! The elevation and worship of SWMS is a delusion. If a SWMS is not a thinking and conversation tool, it will unravel in court and the SWMS will be used against you to show that you didn’t follow it. You can have all the SWMS in place and still have an immature culture in understanding and managing risk. This is what happens with ideologies and, the safety industry has helped endorse the ideology of SWMS. The same with zero, the ideology of zero is used to mask all kinds of fallibilities whilst it shifts its by-products to the background. An excellent analysis of SWMS was undertaken by David Borys in 2011 ( and here we are still talking about the seductions of SWMS in 2014.

One of my favourite scenes from Monty Python Life of Brian is ‘The Shoe is a Sign’ scene ( Here are the cultic followers chasing after Brian whom they have deified. In his rush he loses his shoe and the followers come across his shoe and interpret it as a sign, then soon they argue about what the sign is and even about it’s status as a shoe or sandal. Then the followers seek to copy the sign and take off one shoe as a sign of their following and then rush off to find Brian. Later, in the ‘not the messiah’ scene ( the cultic following demonstrate their blind echoes in worship of Brian. The seduction of the cult is to diminish thinking and deify objects.


So whilst the safety community continues to be attracted by the seduction to simplify it holds up the sandal of SWMS and argues about its format. What a grand delusion that the object of worship masks the reality of what it desires. Does that sound like an act of simplicity or an act of faith to you?

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.
  • James@safetybusiness

    Well done. I love the fact that an analogy could be drawn with one of my all time favorite films!

    On a serious note though, it has for many years escaped my capacity to understand why “safety people/ professionals” across this country still fail to grasp the concept of what is a SWMS, or how it is meant to be used/ applied. The fact that some companies end up with SWMS on how to change the castor wheels on an office chair is a fair indictment of the confusion that reigns.

    I have always been a proponent of the fact that SWMS are a communication tool and not a risk assessment! Lets face it risk ratings are not even required in a SWMS. So as you state, if they are not being used as a communication tool and discussion point then the user has completely missed the purpose and intent.

  • Rod

    I think of all the valid points you make here Rob, there is one stand out. “if it is not a thinking and conversation tool” – However I would amend “it will unravel in court” to “it is not doing what it should be doing”. I think the fixation with what might happen in court is one of the drivers behind the complex systems we have in place today. If the focus was on the workers learning and understanding of “how to do the job right” and providing them with tool to facilitate this, the rest will take care of itself.

  • Gabrielle Carlton

    Great read Rob. I think if organisations want simple then the best way to tackle some of their problems is stop getting so caught up in their complex systems. This leads them to believing (hubris bias) that they are safe the more complex. Or is that attribution bias or even availability bias….too many biases that influence their decisions!! It is complex but a ‘simple’ way to tackle these issues is to get out from behind their paperwork and go and have a conversation with their people. Get to know their people and start understanding how their people discern risk.

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