The Safety Spoilsport

by Dr Rob Long on January 7, 2017

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

The Safety Spoilsport

LEGO Hard Hat Emmet minifigureOne of the things we hated as kids was the ‘spoilsport’, the one who wouldn’t ‘play’ in the spirit of the game. Indeed, spoilsports were the ones who hated play full stop.

Play is an essential part of learning. Play recognises the uncertain in learning and doesn’t stress about not knowing the outcome. Play teaches us that autotelic activity (with meaning and purpose in itself), are critical for growth, development and education of personhood. It is through play that we learn a special form of tacit knowledge about others and about play itself. The fun and joy in play is discovered in the participation of playing itself, not for some serious (or ulterior) outcome but for the learning in its own sake. In this way we just know the ‘other’ is at play. The pleasure of play, is being in play. We also know that play is not serious indeed, to attach the word ‘serious’ to play wrecks the very meaning of play. BTW, anyone who studies a teaching degree knows about play and the importance of play in educational development. The latest fad for executives of Lego Serious Play ( is a great example of nonsense language and discourse applied to non- leadership. I am sure it earns good dollars for consultants, but it is a contradiction of the meaning of ‘play’. The application of structure and control to play makes it no longer play.

It is critical to maturity to learn when we and others are ‘at play’. In order to be human we need to know when improvisation, discovery, messiness, spontaneity, uncertainty, freedom, ambiguity, risk, creativity, paradox, fun and purpose in purposelessness are at work. We know it was a ‘play-fight’. We made a ‘play’ on words. We went outside to ‘play’. It wasn’t serious, it was just play. All of these expressions make (tacit) sense to us. We also need to discern when others are serious or at play, because any confusion can lead to violence, taking others the wrong way or misunderstandings.

We also learn very early in life that the wreckers of play are ‘spoilsports’. These are the ones who want control and can’t have it. These are the ones who want certainty but can’t create it. These are the ones who hate play because they hate disorder, freedom and uncertainty. The spoilsports only want the power to control and hate the loss of that power in play. The spoilsport takes their bat and ball and goes home. For the spoilsport everything is binary, you either play ‘my way or the highway’. There is no freedom for ‘emergence’ or ‘evolution’ in the demand for absolute power and control, all must be zero.

We know that Safety can only be the spoilsport because, Safety hates:

  1. Alack of structure, the safety curriculum is all about regulation, there can be no self-regulation in the study of safety ( ). Indeed, the freedom of the self is the enemy of Safety. ‘Engineer out the idiot’ is the mantra.
  2. Loss of control, there can be no messiness or there will never be zero.

  3. Fun and freedom, only dominance by Safety in the name of good/care/helping can ensure that people come to zero harm.

  4. Dialogue, it only likes ‘telling’, this is because safety has assumed the role of ‘custodians of the Act’, even though no one in safety is a lawyer. The mythology that a $350 Cert 4 in WHS makes one a bush lawyer is alive and well in safety. (Read more about the The Law and the Social Psychology of Risk here: )

  5. Loss of power. Safety cannot release power of choice to others. This is because ‘safety is a choice you make’. And if people chose harm they must be ‘saved’ from themselves. This power of salvation makes safety a religious activity, evidenced in the Bradley Curve and in safety discourse ( ). The power of salvation entitles power over ‘others’ who ‘chose’ unsafety. In this way safety ‘saves’ others from their own will. In the end, a passion for safety is often made a justification for all dehumanization of others in the name of salvation.

  6. Learning, because learning requires risk and risk must be eliminated.

  7. Improvisation or bicolage, everything is unsafe without rigid regulation and control. There can be no zero without absolute ‘cardinal’ rules and enforcement.

  8. Discovery. Discovery acknowledges the open-endedness of all play and in zero there can be no creativity or open future, choice and the freedom to chose is made a problem by Safety not a virtue.

  9. Trade-offs and by-products of all play. For Safety everything is binary either-or, there can be no paradox of experience and life-meaning in safety.

I0. Play. In safety all is serious, this is because safety is about life or death, even play must be made serious, the anathema of play. In this way Safety learns to speak nonsense language and discourse eg. Zero doesn’t mean zero.

If you want to learn more about the nature of play read: Ryall, Russell and MacLean The Philosophy of Play.

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.
  • Rob Long

    One of the early lessons we learn is ‘not to play for sheep stations’. We are told ‘don’t take things so seriously’ and to ‘lighten up’. When learn tacitly that the idea of being serious and play are opposites. ‘Don’t get upset, its only a game’. Seriousness is associated with control and certainty and play is the acceptance of uncertainty and a lack of control. There is no such thing as ‘serious play’.

  • The references to “play” triggered a thought – what about the referee? I realised that most (all?) sports have some sort of referee, and the referee has a huge amount of control over the sport. However, there are some other aspects at play – a too rigid referee can kill a good game. I think we have all seen it happen – no leniency means less creative play, less flow in the game and less fun (both for players and supporters). On the other hand, when we play “social” sports, it is often done without the referee, and even the arguments about a decision becomes part of the game, and part of the fun (within limits). When the group is committed to having fun, the need for a referee diminishes and the game almost becomes self-regulated. This does not mean the players loose their skills or stop using them, it only means the decision process is different, less controlling, and more involved. In my opinion, this often means it is also more fun, and definitely more creative. Maybe if we put the fun back in safety, we may be surprised by how the workers will “step up to the plate”. There is still a need for rules, otherwise it is not a common game any more, so their is still a need for people to apply their minds to “the game” and how it should be played. However, I think there is a lot of scope for then allowing the players to make their own decisions, develop their own culture of what is acceptable, and we may just be surprised at an outcome that is better than anything we can create by absolute (or maximum) control.

    • Takes me back to this one from a year ago: – I would rather put fun into safety than safety into fun!!!! How good would it be if safety were like sport and we had representative bodies that actually represented and other authorities who would test and monitor for cheating (fiddling accident stats)

      • Yes, and it would mean we still need the “safety” expert, but in a different role. They would now be advisors who propose ideas to be considered, share history and research wider than their own home company to see what can be learnt from others. The representative bodies would be the people at the “coal face”, who are not interested in getting hurt anyway, so there is an incentive for meaningful discussion already. (While I do not support the “You choose to be safe” mantra, I also believe (most) people do not want to be hurt, so they already will be interested in suggestions or shared lessons for purely “selfish” reasons.)

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