Sticks and Stones and the Nonsense of Zero Harm

by Dr Rob Long on May 19, 2017

in Psychology of Safety and Risk,Robert Long,Zero Harm



Sticks and Stones and the Nonsense of Zero Harm

imageWhen we were kids we were taught the rhyme ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sticks_and_Stones ). This mantra is such a silly childish semiotic that totally ignores the nature of how language affects the mind. The truth is, words do matter. What we say and how we say it can be so harmful. (see further: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/words-can-change-your-brain, Fairhurst ‘The Power of Framing’ or, Flynn, Slovic & Kunreuther ‘Risk, Media and Stigma’)

We know how harmful bullying can be. We also know that bullying and harassment in the workplace leads to suicide and significant psychological harm. We know this is so based on the Alec Meikle suicide and Downer EDI case (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-01-30/inquest-into-the-suicide-of-a-teenage-apprentice-ends/6057712 ).

I wonder if any tier one organisations who espouses zero harm record the number of people bullied in their organization? I wonder if they even consider the relationship between absenteeism and bullying? I wonder if psychological harm is even a blip on their zero harm radar? I bet no TRIFR or LTI rate records bullying! See how absurd zero harm is.

The truth is, the language of zero harm and counting TRIFR and LTIs creates a focus on physical harm. Safety counts only what it sees. Under the rubric of zero harm, cuts and breaks become privileged information and desired knowledge, whereas hidden and unseen harm is not considered harm. The delusion of zero is only kept alive by this crazy idea that safety is achieved by the absence of harm. So companies freak out over any LTI but let hundreds of days of absenteeism slip under the radar. Beautiful, this is the zero harm delusion.

A recent survey in building and construction (http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/seven-in-10-young-workers-bullied-harassed-in-canberra-unions-act-20170514-gw4tbm.html) indicated that young people are bullied on site at an alarming rate. The research shows the level and power of harm projected by such bullying. For example, a young person being called ‘retard’ is a very powerful metaphor and semiotic. Metaphors are perhaps the most powerful of semiotics when it comes to bullying. Ricoeur calls metaphor a ‘heuristic of thought’ (‘The Rule of Metaphor’). A heuristic is psychological ‘rule of thumb’ that substitutes for a lengthy process or discourse. There it is, just one word-metaphor can be so powerful because it sums up a mind picture of all that is attached to it.

It is not surprising that Safety doesn’t really get the social psychological nature of bullying. When Safety accepts such incongruent metaphors as ‘Resilience Engineering’ as normal, we can see the extent of the problem. The fact that Safety is so immersed in the mechanistic worldview is also a critical factor in why bullying runs under the radar. With a WHS curriculum so focused on objects and an SIA body of knowledge so focused on systems and hazards, is it any wonder that bullying receives no mention as a social-psychological problem.

The article cited above also states: ‘ACT work safety commissioner Greg Jones said harsher penalties did not always lead to compliance’. How true. Greg Smith has written so eloquently on this (https://www.safetyrisk.net/450000-is-this-what-we-want-from-prosecutions/ ). Penalties are so ineffective because bullying is a cultural problem and silly dumb down Safety defines culture as ‘what we do around here’. So again, with such a definition one can only focus on behaviours and this leads to a total ignorance of the power of symbols, artefacts and semiotics as cultural factors. Poor old Safety, still focused on behaviourism and measurement whilst an epidemic of bullying runs under the radar. Of course, the ideology of behaviourism also promotes the nonsense that penalties and punishment drive behaviour. Our gaols are full of examples that kill off such mythology. Research into the psychology of goals and motivation show quite clearly that people are not the sum of inputs and outputs (https://www.safetyrisk.net/understanding-safety-goals/ ).

So what can be done to invoke some change? First, organisations need to take language and semiotics seriously, which means they need to understand the critical issues. Trouble is, there is no training in the orthodox safety world on semiotics. Second, organisations need to dump nonsense language like ‘zero harm’ and start to speak a different language that has a holistic focus. Safety will never see bullying as a social-psychological problem when it is blind to its own ‘collective unconscious’. Third, curriculum reform is needed to help the industry move away from a ‘dumb down’ focus on objects and hazards to better focus on people as subjects (not as a sub-set of a system). When safety begins to understand itself as a ‘helping’ activity rather than a surveillance activity, then the rate of bullying may start to be addressed.

There are a host of other actions Safety can take to address the scourge of bullying but unless bullying is understood as a social-psychological problem, nothing much will change.

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.
  • Bernard Corden

    Dear Goran,

    It is worth quoting one of the early members of the Fabian society, Harold Laski…..A healthy loyalty is active and critical not passive and complacent.

    • Goran Prvulovic

      Agreed Bernard

  • Bernard Corden

    Dear Rob,

    I have submitted the latest version of my paper to every federal and state minister, who has industrial relations and health and safety in their portfolio.
    I have also provided a copy to the SWA strategy team to coincide with its mid-term review.
    The ACTU, AWU, CFMEU and board members at state regulatory authorities also have copies. It highlights the ineffectiveness of SWA and how they merely assist with delivery of the government’s workplace relations system amidst a neoliberal maelstrom reinforced by a unilateral doctrine of laissez faire with a malevolent freedom to harm.

  • Bernard Corden

    It was Joseph Stalin who said one death is a tragedy and a million is a statistic. He was pretty conversant with totalitarian regimes and dystopian environments.
    Global corporate behemoths display similar psycopathic and socially autistic traits.
    They are an anthropomorphic fallacy. They have no memory, soul to save or body to incarcerate.

  • Russel Skiter

    Some of those top tier organizations such as Rio and BHP do not even include their cases of occupational illnesses in their stats, let alone anything else. They live on a separate spreadsheet and this is pretty much a public knowledge. It is difficult to ‘demonstrate organizational commitment to safety this way … it is a joke for the most part

    • Rob Long

      … and then they roll up at a peek body conference and spruik their propaganda which in the end totally discredits the discipline of safety. Then people wonder why safety is a joke when people talk about being ‘professional’. Of course most of this comes from CEOs not safety people but they all (including the peaks) cow tow to the nonsense and so endorse it.

      • Goran Prvulovic

        Very true, heaps of safety professionals today place their pay check and career progress before progress of safety under the pressure to comply to restrictive and often completely inaccurate thinking and perception from above, instead of challenging them. Challenging those can be very career limiting in some places. This is the stuff that really makes a difference between a safety professional and a safety lackey.

  • Bernard Corden

    The nonsense of zero harm is best encapsulated by the linking of performance bonuses to Injury frequency rates. On one major CSG project there was a fatality. The tier one contractor was prosecuted and received a $160,000 fine in Roma magistrates court but is in receivership and the dependents have taken the common law compensation route.
    Meanwhile an executive of the client walks away with a almost a $1 million for meeting performance targets.
    Immediately following the fatality there was a whip round and a woollen beany was passed around at pre start meetings for donations. A corporate email was distributed stating that the client would match what was collected.

    This happened in 2014 not 1814. So much for the mantra of zero harm. Always be sincere even if you don’t mean it – Harry S Truman.

    • Rob Long

      So true Bernard. So few will speak out against it and most don’t understand its psychological import nor the power of language. and of course no peak body dare cut the hand that feeds them to maintain any ethical stance on a scourge on the safety industry. Instead, the reproduction of dumb down continues the nonsense that it is just a goal. Most clearly it is an ideology. But what does dumb down know of ideology? Simply captivated by measurement and STEM epistemology.

      • Bernard Corden

        Dear Rob,
        I was speaking with a colleague recently and we were discussing the composition of the safety discipline and the Pareto principle applies.
        Almost 80% of crusaders are too dumb and stupid and fail to understand that they have been captured by the zero harm and enforcement, compliance and blame the victim dogma. They are more concerned with who is screwing Posh Spice or what Kim Kardashian had for breakfast.
        15% are fully conversant with the underlying issues but have absolutely no integrity and are part of the Harry Truman sincerity cult
        5% rattle cages but the other 95% don’t care or listen.

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