Archetypes of Safety Professionals

Some thoughts on creating a learning organisation

Ronald: Captain we have an inspection today, the inspector will be arriving soon.

Captain: OK, Ronald. Leave two fire extinguishers out in the alleyway, that will keep him busy.

Ronald: Understood Captain.

Later, an inspection is carried out, and true to the instinct of the captain, a non-conformance is issued by the inspector. “Several fire extinguishers were found removed from the bracket and kept outside in the alleyway. All the extinguishers were placed back in their cradles before the inspection was concluded.”

You may discard this as a joke or wonder why exaggerate? But after several years of thinking and listening, I am realizing some interesting patterns in how we as safety professionals present ourselves in everyday conversations. I will choose to call them ‘archetypes of safety professionals’ – a term I borrow from Carl Jung.


So why did I choose the term archetype? To answer this question, I will start with an example. On the internet last week, when I searched for Filipino seafarers, I noticed many images of cheerful looking workers carrying out laborious activities on the deck of the ship. By contrast, when I used the phrase ‘British seafarer’ or ‘Indian seafarer’, I found examples of seafarers in uniform or young cadets on the bridge of a ship.

These are two archetypes of seafarers (there can be many more) – happy labourers and good officers – and they help us understand why in many shipping companies, seafarers from Philippines are not allowed opportunities for career progression, why British or Indian seafarers are offered senior positions and why accident investigations become simplified sagas of Filipino seafarers not being able to speak-up to a British captain despite a clear and present danger. (I recently noticed a LinkedIn post where an Indonesian seafarer was promoted as a ship captain for the first time in a shipping company, and this became a cause for celebration for the entire shipping community.)

You may think isn’t this the result of historical developments in the maritime labour markets? The dominant labour supplying countries with established institutions and infrastructure should understandably produce better trained seafarers. But this is a justification we have accepted at an unconscious level. The futility of this myth becomes evident as more companies recruit and invest in quality training of seafarers from non-traditional countries and find them equally competent. An individual’s competence is not determined by their national or ethnic identity.

But it matters to the employers, recruitment agencies, and accident investigators whose views are vastly influenced by the archetypes of seafarers. Those images and patterns of seafarers that have become immersed in our psyche shape our realities, limit our worldview, and trap us in ways of thinking and enacting our thoughts. And it works both ways. The same archetypes also create conflict for the seafarers when they start to accept that speaking up is not even in their genes despite undertaking courses after courses or discovering that career progression is beyond their reach even after signing an ‘equal opportunity’ policy statement.

Knowledge of the archetypes helps us to connect with our collective unconscious. We become more aware and less judgmental of ourselves and others. We may not always have influence over who we can recruit in our companies, but we can at least start to think about the Filipino and British seafarers beyond the confines of ‘happy people’ or ‘good officers’. For the seafarer, knowing that he is not alone and that others have been in the same situation creates acceptance of own self and fosters collaboration with others. Archetypes raise our consciousness and widen our perspectives of the world; they help us realize who we truly are and that there are elements within our psyche that we cannot always control.

Archetypes of safety professionals

Back to the conversation about the fire extinguishers at the start, the aim of this article is to present a few archetypes of safety professionals. The idea is to recognise how we present ourselves in different ways and connect with our consciousness; this is not the same as putting people into pre-determined personality traits.

The inspector’s profession

1)   The veteran archetype – I am a safety inspector and I believe in zero harm. It is my duty to eradicate all the sufferings in the world. But over the years I have realized that every time I raise a safety concern, I usually end up upsetting a lot of people in position of power and create even more problems. The fire extinguisher gives me a way to exist in the world without stirring up everything else around me.

2)   The dutiful archetype – I have more than 200 checks on my list and only 4 hours for the inspection. There’s no way I can get to the bottom of the list. Recording at least one defect with a fire extinguisher gives me a sense of accomplishment that I’ve done my duty.

3)   The diplomatic archetype – I find it challenging to engage with people whose values are so different from mine. The fire extinguisher tells them that I am concerned about their safety, and despite our significant differences my values coincide with theirs.

4)   The authoritarian archetype – Even with all the experience, a lot of times when I go out for inspections, I feel out of depth. The fire extinguisher legitimises my power and authority. It stops them from questioning the depth of my knowledge.

5)   The self-conscious archetype – How do I go back to the office and submit an inspection report without recording a single non-conformance? The fire extinguisher will save my face and preserve my identity as an inspector.

6)   The persuasive archetype – It sounds a lot more convincing when I use the phrase ‘several fire extinguishers’ because then I can prove the problem is systemic.

7)   The saviour archetype – What if there was a fire on the ship? I saved so many lives today by putting the fire extinguishers back in the cradle.

The captain’s profession:

1)   The breadwinner archetype – Another day in port, another inspection. So long as the inspector finds something that I can fix, I will have a job. The fire extinguisher gives me a sense of job security.

2)   The guardian archetype – There’s a lot going on when we arrive in port, my crew haven’t slept in the last 24 hours. I don’t care about safety; I want my crew to rest. The fire extinguisher will keep things simple and easy in a cognitively demanding work environment.

3)   The creative archetype – The company expects a clean audit report, but no one is willing to commit the resources. The fire extinguisher is a creative way to show that everything is in control.

4)   The spiritual archetype – Before the inspector leaves the ship, I would have fixed the problem and that too without losing my peace of mind. With the fire extinguisher, I have found my bliss.

5)   The entertainer archetype – I am arriving port and so many visitors will board the ship, I must put on a show. A fire extinguisher kept out of place will mesmerise them.

The manager’s profession:

1)   The visionary archetype – Captain, I would like to thank you for your professionalism. I have been following your good work and your outstanding ability to close all the findings, even before the inspections are concluded. It shows our commitment to zero harm and a safer future.

2)   The caring archetype – I have noticed that in the last quarter, a lot of ships have reported issues with fire extinguishers, and as you are aware, we take your feedback seriously. I will conduct a thorough investigation and respond soon. I want to assure you that we care for the safety of our people.

3)   The fixer archetype – Upon investigation, I have identified that the problem lies with poor quality of extinguishers. I will now issue a fleet-wide alert and share the lessons learnt from this experience. That’s problem fixed.

A few weeks later, a fleet safety alert is issued and shared across the ships. Upon receipt, the captain goes back to Ronald with a depressed face.

Ronald: What happened Captain? You don’t look happy.

Captain: Did you not read this fleet safety alert Ronald?

Ronald: No captain, what does it say?

Captain: The company has decided to increase the frequency of inspection of fire extinguishers from weekly to daily.

Ronald: Oh no Captain! I don’t even have the time to check 80 fire extinguishers each day.

Captain: don’t worry Ronald, we will do exactly what we have always done. Tick off the checklist and job done!

Ronald: Understood Captain.

What goes around will come around. I call it the karmic wheel – an archetype of continuous improvement? But who does this really help?

Regardless of your industry or work sector, here are some questions that came to mind from this story:

To the CEOs concerned with employee engagement:

Why should people share their concerns with you?

To the CFOs with a focus on maximising profits:

How would raising and fixing non-conformances in this manner reduce costs?

To supervisors and front-line staff:

How would such non-conformances create openness and trust within your teams?

To safety departments:

How would such non-conformances improve safety and quality?

To learning departments issuing safety bulletins, alerts, flashes, and newsletters:

What are we learning from such non-conformances?

Who do you think needs to learn?

To human resource departments:

How would this improve interpersonal relationships?

To big data analysts:

What would such non-conformances predict?

To regulation, certification, and inspection bodies:

How would such non-conformances add value to your customers’ business?

How would this help to achieve your purpose?

To the general reader:

Disagreements are very welcome

A short exercise on creating a learning culture

Think of some real-life examples and ask your team members to list archetypes of professionals across departments based on those example (i.e., purchase, technical, operations, HR, safety, quality, senior management, receptionist, cleaners, caterers, legal. You may also wish to include other stakeholders such as regulators, suppliers, and customers).

At times when so much importance is assigned to mental health illness, recognising that we represent so many selves as we go about our daily live helps us come to terms with ourselves. It makes us think and become aware of our differences. Once we realise and speak about our differences, we create space for uncertainty and doubt. Learning and collaboration inevitably follows.

Recommended readings:

Jung, C. G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Princeton, N.J. Princeton University Press, 1980.

Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Books, 1959.

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