Safety Justifies Anything and Everything

by Dr Rob Long on May 8, 2013

in Psychology of Safety and Risk,Risk Aversion,Robert Long

Safety Justifies Anything and Everything

guest post by Dr Rob Long from

Once we have the safety moral high ground we can offend anyone, because we care about them? Once I have this moral high ground I can manipulate data for my own ends, I can police others, crusade and oppress others because, in the name of care, I must drive as hard as I can for the absolute goal of zero.

Depositphotos_8171991_xsIsn’t it strange how the quest for safety is used to justify all range of unethical practice. As long as we put the intention and words of safety in front of some practice or some idea, we are somehow allowed to bully, intimidate, manipulate, overpower and say anything offensive, as long as we speak the sacred unchallenged words of safety.

Isn’t it strange how someone in some moral tirade about caring for lives then bullies people into submission because ‘it’s good for them’. Isn’t it odd that safety has now achieved such unchallenged power in the workplace that it justifies dominating others, ‘saving people from themselves’ and hitting anyone over the head with a verbal assault, because people are dying at work.

This is the thin edge of the wedge of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism states that the end justifies the means, that is, the goal over rides the process, the outcome over rides the method. This is what drives such patronizing and dangerous practices as dubious psychometrics in the name of zero harm. With such practices and such blindsidedness one can ignore the by-products of behavior because the goal of zero harm is unquestioned and paramount. In some strange form of logic I often hear the justification of bullying others because they ‘care about them’, I deem ‘it’s good for them’. Recently I was told by someone that we have to ‘save unsafe people from themselves’ as a justification of some nonsense pseudo-science. This is simply more of this unethical and superior ‘this is good for you’ nonsense, dished out to adults as children. Let’s help the fallible humans underneath us with a good flogging.

It seems as long as we have the moral high ground of zero harm it; justifies putting people out of work, intimidating people with fear and retribution and, taking the superior ground over other fallible humans. These disguise a host of unethical and ulterior motives, political behaviours and nasty dehumanizing practices.

Once we have the safety moral high ground we can offend anyone, because we care about them? Once I have this moral high ground I can manipulate data for my own ends, I can police others, crusade and oppress others because, in the name of care, I must drive as hard as I can for the absolute goal of zero. Anyone who questions zero must then be marginalized as an unbeliever. Once people are made unbelievers, anything can be justified against the demonised.

Isn’t it a strange logic that asserts authoritarianism in the name of risk aversion. When risk is made evil, then any inquisition is justified. It justifies seeking out the offenders in a hazard (witch) hunt, diagnosing the unsafe people, those sinful risk takers and marginalizing them out of the workforce. What is needed is compliant obedient believers who do as they are told, who do what I tell them. It’s one rule for all, except me. It’s perfectionism for every fallible worker, except me.

It’s about time we named bullying justified by safety as bullying. It’s about time we named the method of justifying the assault, dehumanisation and be-littling of others, in the name of safety as unethical. The end doesn’t justify the means, if we allow this mindset then we open up our organisations to anything in the name of safety.

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.
  • dav23a


  • Ned

    The modern world has been enlightened and the new Gods of safety installed to keep us safe from ourselves through fear of the Gods…..
    There lieth the challenge for this generation of safety practitioners.
    How to reign safety back in so that people become their own champion of working safely.
    How to get teams to look out for each other ALL of the time and not just when it is perceived as dangerous or when someone is watching.
    How to get people to feel comfortable enough to intervene and that said interventions are accepted as ok.
    and the list goes on.

  • Wynand

    Referring to the posts of Ned and Riskex: At a previous job I had, we had a small experimental coke oven. When emptying the oven, ca 280 kg of coke, ca 1000°C, was pushed into a water cooled basket in a hole in the floor – no barriers were possible due to the operation. Nobody ever got hurt there – some injuries were sustained lighting the flare on the stack, cuts with glassware, strain injuries from handling heavy items etc. This then made me conclude that visibly dangerous situations are often safer because the risk is visible and triggers caution. It is the seemingly safe situations that are the ones that sometimes cause big accidents. If you look at many process accidents, you will find that the original judgement errors that caused the accidents were not obvious. (There are some obvious ones that cause severe injuries, like cutting open a drum that can contain flammable fumes. However, how many people would expect that filling a distillation tower too fast can destroy a plant?) I found that teaching my 3 year old son how to “feel” if a surface is hot was much more effective than constantly warning him “this is hot”. We need to move more towards helping people assess the real risks and understand the processes, rather than covering them in paper, such as excessive procedures.

    I like to refer to a paper Peter Sandman pulished in 2001 – “Motivated inattention and safety management”. If you tell people stuff they do not believe (lie Zero Harm, or “Safety is our no 1 priority”, they will subconsciously get the message “You need to separate the facts from the bull for yourself”, and you loose total control over what they will believe and what not. The real message can then easily be discarded, and (I believe) the more “bull” they experience, the more messages they will discard. Furthermore, the people you really want (critical and innovative thinkers) will become your worst enemies, since they will call you out (at least in the corridors), and instead of becoming your allies, they become your apponents. A lot of good safety (dare I say culture?) stands and falls on the honesty and opennes in messages from management.

  • Ned

    Exactly, the perception of risk quantifies a higher degree of caution. Once comfortable, our defences drop. Or we see dollar signs

  • Ned

    Exactly. Don’t ever downplay being peacetime Army, I too spent a good number of years in the peacetime Air Force and in hindsight, am damned glad I didn’t get to a theatre of war , although the aim was to get into an operational unit and do what we trained for.

    It is proof that we are most vulnerable safety wise, when we perceive comfortable surroundings. Safety needs to be instilled in the subconscious

    • Riskex

      Agreed – i do a bit with public liability claims – amazes me that a little old lady can negotiate a goat track to take a short cut to get to a shopping centre then fall on hazard free footpaths or terrazo

  • Ned

    An interesting thing to look at , and it may e a tad off course.

    QLD Fire and Rescue
    They have a permanent workforce and a volunteer army (for want of a better description)
    Their permanent workforce has a passionate union that has achieved many good and safe wins for their rank and file with equipment being fit for purpose and built up to a standard. Their volunteer force makes do with a far smaller budget and equipment built down to a dollar value.

    The approach to safety is very much driven by corporate protection from the nasty litigation of injured workers, but at the coalface there is a very interesting approach.

    There is a huge relaince on Dynamic Risk Assessment and Situational Awareness

    Through a solid regime of education and the fact that the job is intrinsically dangerous, (let’s face it, fire is hot and it is unforgiving), the crews , both paid (app 3000) and more increasingly the volunteers (app 35000) have a very healthy awareness f their working environment on callouts. They assess risk and identify safe work procedures enroute to incidents and modify their plan on scene. their assessment of risk is truly dynamic and based on the collective awareness of the whole team,
    In contrast, most incidents involving injury appear to occur after the callout, in the station or doing the mundane routine chores when there is no emergency to deal with.

    This is certainly something that needs to be looked at by the wider safety community as it is a profound situation that may be unique to those who do extremely dangerous tasks. The question: What can we learn from it.

    Food for thought

    • Riskex

      Great point mate – i spent a few years in the army and, whilst never involved in actual conflict, considering some of the high risk stuff we used to do in training there were remarkably few injuries – i reckon most of these were during periods of stand down or R&R?????

  • Ned

    Very well said. I often find that the Zero Harm mantra is abused by those businesses that adopt it. I often am often told by workers, Zero Harm is rubbish, (offensive wording removed 🙂 ).
    Many don’t understand that A company should be aspiring to reach and maintain a level of zero harm. Reaching it is easy. We all do it every hour, day, week , month etc. As a collective group it is also easy to achieve for the same periods. It is maintaining that level that becomes the difficult thing. Once a worker understands that concept they are more accepting of the concept. On the other hand, from the top down, zero harm is driven by KPI’s. Here starts the bullying.
    if we can change the motivation of the decision makers to one of genuine care for the employees then we may have a head start.

    Culture change success is measured in the decades not the years or months. Having senior managers who get out in the field and talk to their employees, experience their employees work and frustrations, place themselves in harms way, is a good sign of motivational and cultural change. Asking each and every person in the business to look at their workplace (and moreso the hazardous areas) and ask themselves if they would be happy if their kids to worked there under the same conditions. All good signs of healthy culture change.
    If you give a person an excuse, they will use it. If you allow people to break rules they often will. By changing how they perceive those rules, by allowing the people to have ownership of the rules and encouraging the whole workforce to not walk past something that is wrong but stop and fix it, then we will see cultural change in the workplace.

    The worst indicator of a bullying company – Focus on LTI and MTI’s
    Whilst an indicator for how a business may be travelling with regard to hurting people and loss of profits, these beasts only force people to hide the truth in order to make the boss/ shareholders happy.
    I would much rather people report things so that we can identify cause and controls than hide them until a coroners inquest unearths them.
    When a worker sprains an ankle, they need time off for it to heal properly, yet businesses focus on giving them some filing or training material to take home. EXCUSE ME? Suck it up and own it. Injured and sick people have to heal properly then, and only then, it should be looked at for rehab and return to work.

    Anyway, Rant Over. Frustrations relieved.
    Have a great day

    • Riskex

      Nailed it Ned!!!!

  • jwa;la sharma

    It seems as long as we have the moral high ground of nil harm it; justifies putting people out of work, intimidating people with fear and retribution and, taking the superior ground over other fallible humans. These disguise a host of unethical and ulterior motives, political behaviours and nasty dehumanizing practices at plant…by jwala Sharma

  • George Robotham

    A thing that amuses me is the people and organisations that say safety must be the number one priority. Call me cynical if you will but the number one priority of most organisations is usually to get a reasonable return on financial investment. There are not for profit organisations doing good works but even those have to have a R.O.I. to continue to do their work. One company I worked for you had to prove at least 18% R.O.I. if you wanted funding for an initiative.
    Safety is held up as the Holy Grail and sometimes companies are asked to introduce safety initiatives that do not make good business sense to bow to the God of safety.
    There are some well intentioned and caring safety people who present emotive reasons for safety change when they should be using solid business cases for safety change.

  • Wynand

    Sometimes we actually have to protect people from themselves. I you know somebody is doing something silly, would you look the other way? However, there is a continuum for how to do it. If you teach a child to ride a bicycle, you let him fall a few times. On the other hand, you do not teach this child on a dangerous mountain-biking route. There is also a world of difference between how you teach a child and how you teach an adult. And I think this is where the bullying often starts – the adult who is so arrogant as to not respect the adulthood of the learner. I have read some on adult training, and I know just enough to appreciate that “I talk, you listen” is often the worst method of training. We need to be more cooperative, more supportive, more facilitating and less telling. I also believe a large amount of safety “professionals” are more of auditable system operators than caring, supportive facilitators. Applying rules have its place, telling and enforcing has its place, but so does dialogue and cooperation. (I am not advocating becoming a snivelling idiot, I am advocating becoming respectful). One thing a bully does not have is respect.

    I this perhaps a fear of losing a job, or some amount of power hunger that makes bullies from some (most???) safety professionals?

  • Michael

    These same type dont react well to being shown their ohs policies and procedures arent worth the paper they are written on unless it was absorbent and perforated

  • John hardman

    Well put, great article Rob. Not only named but shamed for it is.

  • i am a cynic

    I think we are at the stage of “spot the good ones”, ie companies who do not fall into this category.

    There aren’t too many left are there?

  • Finally, someone actually named the elephant in the room.

    Excellent article, Rob.

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