Safety Culture – An eight part series with Dr Robert Long on culture and learning (5/8)

July 6, 2023



In this podcast, Dr Nippin Anand and Dr Rob Long, explore the meaning of ‘safety culture’. We explore the symbolism, rituals and myths of safety and question the ‘silences’ (i.e., what is not spoken) in the discourse of safety. We discuss religion and taboos and why focusing on taboos is essential to understanding safety culture.

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Nippin Anand  00:00

Hello and welcome to embracing differences with me Nippin Anand, founder of novellus, a podcast series dedicated to understanding different perspectives about how we as human beings, or rather, social beings make decisions. The podcast series draws from different disciplines including religion, mythology, sociology, anthropology, social psychology, biology, neurosciences and stem, making it truly transdisciplinary meaning transporting her rather travelling across disciplines. The idea is not to claim that one method or discipline is superior to the other, but to hold competing disciplines, competing values, diverse perspectives, intention. And when that happens, we create space for doubt and reflection. The idea is to enjoy travelling and the ambiguity that comes with it. Experiencing dissonance, discomfort, how else do we learn? This is a podcast about understanding culture, safety, culture, and how we as human beings learn. We’re Dr. Robert long. In this podcast, we discussed the idea of safety culture. So, Dr. Robert long and I discuss and explore the meaning of safety culture, we explored the symbolism, the rituals and the myth of safety and question the silences which means, what is not spoken about when it comes to the language of safety and risk. We discuss religion and taboos. And why focusing on taboos is so essential to understanding the idea of culture and safety culture.


Rob Long  02:01

Her Oh, yes. How are you doing? I’ve had the best day. Yes, I’ve had the best day. Me too. And you saw it happen? Yes. Yes, it was. It wasn’t a cultural idea. It was a cultural experience. If you weren’t there, you would not know about it. In fact, I can’t explain to the group what happened. So I’m not gonna try. But it did raise to the surface, the issue of culture, it was amplified so much. And so we want to talk about safety, culture and culture.


Nippin Anand  02:37

That’s why this Rob, would you so we are in the beautiful city of Chennai, Chennai. Yeah. And we’ve been here for the last four or five days amazing symbolism. They’ve been visiting temples, churches, we’ve been talking to a lot of people and training rooms. And yes, yes. And trying to understand the this whole notion of safety and culture and safety culture, in the maritime world, you have had many, many aha moments. And so have I just seeing it through your eyes, I would like you to help me understand, Rob, what’s your view on this whole idea of safety culture?


Rob Long  03:16

Okay, just want to take one step back, I think I need to tell my story about how I came in to the understanding of culture that I have. And some of its connect to anthropology in which you’re an expert, but I actually discovered what culture was about through religion, and not just my own personal experiences in my own life, but also in my studies. And there is I haven’t read any good expert analysis, that concerns culture that does not discuss all of the component parts of religions. So, symbolism, ritual, gesture, language, semiotics, metaphysical ideas and so on right? These are all essential to understanding culture. Safety, culture is no different. If if it’s the culture of the safety industry, then why is nobody even discussing even slightly, these things which in an anthropological sense, or sociological sense, or in a religious sense, considered foundational, so here we are in India, right? Even in my motel room, where I’m staying, and it’s not really an Indian motel, it’s really an American chain motel. At the end of each hallway, is religious symbols beside the liquid his religious symbols, you walk into the restaurant, it’s religious symbols mandalas, candles, shapes, gods, and so on, right. And here we are walking past these things all day. And yet in the safety world, we’re told, in fact, we’re told through silences, that this is not a part of safety culture. And so what we end up with most discussions of safety culture is some strange behaviours, cognitive, propositional idea that safety culture is about A, B, C, and D. It’s mostly conceptual stuff. It’s not experiential, and it’s not phenomenological. So when you ask me about safety culture, one of the first things I would say is the best way to understand what the what the nature of a industry of safety is, in its culture, is the very things that are never spoken about. But there are obvious and present. What are the mythologies of safety? What are the rituals of safety? What is the semiotics of safety? What is the language of safety? If we start asking those questions, we might get closer to the idea of what safety culture is. I would scout close to 99% of nearly everything I’ve seen, that is branded safety, culture is not its systems, you’re reading about the culture of systems, not about safety culture. And it’s not just about religion, there are many, many things associated with mythology, ritual gesture, and so on, that never discussed. But what we’re really focusing on his systems and systems are a part of culture, but a very small part of culture. Structure is a very small part of culture, you only have to drive on the roads of Chennai to realise that structure has been thrown out the window, and that everyone on the road is not driving to a structure. They’re driving to intuitive knowledge. And I have a ritual about it. Most of the people have got a God on their dashboard.


Nippin Anand  07:34

How do you explain that, isn’t it?


Rob Long  07:35

Well, I mean, I can explain it because my understand I mean, it’s my understanding of culture doesn’t exclude things like faith in mythology. But you show me one book anywhere in safety across the world. That includes that in its understanding of the industry in safety and its culture. It’s not that


Nippin Anand  08:01

fascinating. Yes, you’re right. You you you brought in a lot of words, you use the word silences. Yeah. Can you just for the Layperson and also use the word phenomenology for a layperson, would you like to explain what does silence I mean?


Rob Long  08:20

It’s really interesting. Mary Douglas, who is a global expert on culture, probably one of the greatest anthropologists of all time, she talks about purity and taboo. And taboo is really important in understanding culture. So for example, in Indian culture, what are the taboos? What are the silences? Yeah. And then if you come in an Australian context, what are the taboos? Well, a funny, taboo in Australian culture is don’t talk about religion. If you go to a party, don’t talk about religion and divide the party. Here we are in India, if I talk about religion, it’s like talking about eating. It’s just a common way even. And by the way, in Indian eating, the ritual, the gesture, the symbolism is a lawless. So, silences are about taboos. And safety has many of them. Safety, never talks about faith. Safety, never talks about fallibility, and I could list them all. So these are the taboos, these other silences, but the trouble is silences allow the amplification of things that actually don’t matter. And so what we end up with people running all over the place talking about culture, safety, and it’s really systems and the amplifying that, oh, safety is all about structures and systems, which means they’re not only silent about what matters, they’re also blind to it.


Nippin Anand  09:57

And I think in one way, what do you use this as So many, many times, and there is a view on systems. There’s one view of system, which is ecosystems. Yes. But I think you’re what you’re referring to is something different. Yes. Would you like to talk about what you mean when you use the word systems? Well, it’s more


Rob Long  10:13

like ecosystems, like you say, but I don’t even talk about ecosystems because there’s a sense in which cultures have a life of their own. And by that, I mean, they have an energy and a force that can’t be explained proposition Aliy. And so, I went for a walk on the streets of Chennai this morning, and no amount of propositional description, you could write a book or 100 pages on it, it won’t equate to walking 100 metres and trying to cross the road. You can’t this is phenomenology, the phenomenon of being correct. Okay. Way too much stuff that’s written on subculture is about brain centrism. It’s about cognitive, rational, sense making. Now it’s not that that’s not important. It’s just it’s only partial. It’s only a small section of what culture is about. And this is one of the problems we have in the western world itself, where lots of fake is driven. United States, England, Australia, very much caught up in cognitive system. Absolutely. And


Nippin Anand  11:23

this is where the idea of safety culture becomes little bit difficult to grasp. Because what it says is that if you cannot measure that, forget it, that’s not important. What you’re suggesting robbers if you cannot measure it, that’s good. Yes. But don’t even try it.


Rob Long  11:38

No, don’t try. So they cannot apply measures to culture. And this is the problem with people who talk about safety culture, as if some say, safety culture can’t be measured. But they then go, then they kind of go the next step and say, Okay, let’s have a look at all the things that can’t be measured. So with that description is safety culture is only about the things we measure, again, it limits and constrains a conversation about what culture is, because now we must not pay attention or listen to anything outside of the constraint, which is why religion is too taboo, or, or the language of faith is taboo, in any discussion on safety, culture, and yet the absurdities, astounding, the very nature of risk. What is risk about? It’s about uncertainty, what is daily action in risk about, it’s about a leap of faith into what I don’t know. And I don’t care with your risk assessment is two pages or 200 pages, you can put that risk assessment down, the very next action you take is an act of faith, you don’t know. And but we’ve got an industry that makes the word faith taboo. Crazy. So it’s not about culture, no matter how many systems you create, the person who’s out in the field in the greatest of risks in the greatest of dangers, is not using rational decision making for what they do. They’re using heuristics and unconscious embodied knowing for what they do. The addiction to risk assessments makes us think that cultural decision making is rational, it is not. And then when something goes wrong, rather than look at how the decisions really were made, we’d go back to a piece of paper, and we use that to examine why it went wrong.


Nippin Anand  13:45

And some, some really good. So if he wanted to take this, you know, so there’s two questions here, Rob. One is a very practical question on so because you started with the idea of religion. Yeah. I would like to first of all understand from you. Give me a few example, that connect religion with safety culture, concrete example. Know what we are talking, okay.


Rob Long  14:10

Let’s just go to the safety moment or the safety minute, or the safety prayer, or the safety ritual, in any organisation that has adopted this methodology, right. So it’s a five minute 10 minute, we’ve got a group of executives around the room, they feel like someone has to say something about safety before they stopped the meeting. Okay, can anyone offer a safety share or safety word, right? And what actually happens is, when companies put this in, they now can’t take it out. Because the ritual is then made sacred, it’s then sacralized. So it’s like if you put zero in an organisation, then you suggest you now take it out. It’s like, you’re now entered into territory of taboo but Most organisations, I know whoever adopted the safety minute or the safety moment, then ritualize it, and then they sacralized it, right? So it’s made sacred, then when it becomes meaningless, we got all these people around a table trying to think of something to say. So they start talking nonsense, because something has to fill the, the, the airspace. And so people talk about silly petty things in the safety moments. And there’s nothing, no difference between that ritual and any other ritual in any other cult or cultic, or culture, where we end up with ritual chants, or ritual counting, or mantras. And so the safety minute becomes a mantra. And in the end, no one knows how to get rid of it, because we’re sacralized how’s that? For an example?


Nippin Anand  15:56

Yeah, very good example, Robin, something I have also noticed, can you help me understand the term sacralized? What does that mean?


Rob Long  16:03

I’m making something sacred. So. So you know, when we make something sacred, we elevate it into a metaphysical space, we give it force beyond its physical being. And you know, that can you can do that with a football team. Right. So, you know, I all sudden, I’m cheering for my football team Manchester United. But there are many fans moved beyond just cheering for a team, right? It now elevates to something sacred. So the belonging they and attachment, they get to Manchester United becomes much, much more than just being a fan, right? We start moving into the territory of gods, we start moving into the territory of metaphysical belief, right? I not only believe in my football team, I believe in religiously, I have commitments to it, I buy this shirt, I buy that T shirt, I put the t shirt above my bed, I have the poster of the best players in my lounge room, you know, I have someone who, who hasn’t, when you ring the doorbell to their house, it plays the team song, you know, like, it then begins to be more than itself a bit a bit like in Star Star Wars, you know, we have this invisible force that controls controls things. Now Jung calls that archetypes, invisible forces that have a life unto themselves. That’s what the sacred is, we move it beyond its physical, physical presence, and it still now takes on a metaphysical present, because it involves belief and faith. And if we move from the rational to now things which are very much emotional, spiritual, etc. And it can happen in simple things like songs. So, you know, we move into that medical thing, the moment we we sing music about heart and soul


Nippin Anand  17:54

into and what I’m thinking right now, as you’re speaking is that because it goes into your belief, it goes into your religion, you know, this whole idea of whether you call it zero accidents or safety moment, as soon as and when when reality hits you, when there is an incident or an accident, there is nothing to rationalise, right, the the default is to go back and blame that person is trying to bully that person. Because back in mind, one mind one of which we will talk about in a future podcast. But the whole idea is that there is no thinking involved and not the default or the instinct as an intuitionist is to straight go and scapegoat someone. Yeah. And I think that is why very powerful. And that is what we don’t realise when we talk about safety culture, that there is unless we recognise the unconscious, the deeper belief at level and which is, which is which is symbolic of the term culture. And it’s not system. No, it’s not systems. So isn’t it amazing, Rob?


Rob Long  18:57

Yeah. Remember last night, we were watching the TV. And it was the Indian Premier League. And the Indian Premier League is owned by Disney. Right? Yes. And every 10 minutes up pops. You’re watching The Indian Premier League, believe believe. Now, that’s how sport turns into a religion. And the word is believe it don’t say anything, believe believe is the mantra. I think safety is exactly the same. So for example, if you go to the conference, where the global safety world adopted zero, the mantra was just believe.


Nippin Anand  19:40

Yes. And adult the world. Just bringing it to end, Rob. Yeah. Because I think one of the things you said was that, once something becomes religious, yes. Then there is no rationality involved in it. And when you listen to When, you know, for example, you’re doing an accident investigation, what you are concerned with is, for example, how did how do you why did this accident happen? And you go into rational models like five, why and tripod. And what you’re saying is so fascinating because your models are not your methods, your models or ontology is not really geared to understand the reason or why the accident happened. Yeah, it falls short of any kind of


Rob Long  20:32

short, it falls short by miles. I, when I do an incident investigation and investigation, I stopped to look at what were the rituals that were believed in? What kinds of mantras and acts of faith are common in this company. And they’re so common, they’re unquestioned and never discussed. What things in this company are taboo and never spoken about what things have been made sacred. I mean, you can make a risk assessment sacred. I go into companies that have the silly Risk Matrix square with green, yellow, and all those sorts of colours. And I sum to the good. Take that out of your risk assessment, get rid of all no, we can’t do that. And the moment you can’t take something out, it’s been made sacred. And yet it has no contribution at all to the incident investigation.


Nippin Anand  21:23

Well, in fact, quite the opposite. Because what we see is that you do a risk assessment yet. And you become so overconfident that then the reality hits if you have no idea, because you’re not critical in your thinking you’re not mindful, correct? Because you have already you have in your in your unconscious, you you you strongly believe that you have already ticked all the boxes.


Rob Long  21:45

That’s right. And, and someone like Greg Smith says that coloured box is his go to in a prosecution. He starts with your belief in that box. And that is a faith belief. That box makes no difference to how a risk is managed or tackled.


Nippin Anand  22:03

And I just to summarise this discussion, wonderful discussion wrong. I think, I think from what I’m hearing, it is so important to talk about religion, mythology, Bill, the the symbol semiotics understand whatever lies in the unconscious. Yeah, correct. That’s where most decisions are made from, even if you don’t make an attempt to understand that you’re just caught in this rational space, which even the latest neuroscience completely rejects. Oh, yeah. Very few decisions are made from this is maybe 1%. Fascinating, Rob. And this is why the idea of safety culture and linking safety culture with religion is so important. Yes. And,


Rob Long  22:43

and any discussion culture. I don’t care with business culture. I don’t care with a sport, culture, safety culture, I don’t care. It’s if you’re leaving these things out, then you’re really doing yourself a disservice. You’re not really look into culture.


Nippin Anand  23:01

And the way to do that, Rob, as I as I’ve understood in this journey, is by having conversations are yet because only to those conversations where you don’t have an agenda. People will tell you something that they don’t even know it only emerges in from the annual register, then


Rob Long  23:17

they’re doing it unconsciously. Yes. They’re not aware of


Nippin Anand  23:20

what is there anything else to say? It’s fine. I think we’ve had enough. It’s been a wonderful conversation. Thank you, Robin. Here we are. Yes. Thank you. Yes. Okay.


Nippin Anand  23:35

Do you have any questions, any feedback, any comments, any criticism, you can always write to us? You can write to me personally, at support@novellus.solutions. You can also leave a message for us on our website, novellus.solutions. You can email me personally at Nippin.anand @novellus.solutions and you can find me on LinkedIn. Until then, have a good day. For those of you who are interested to understand cultural safety, culture and the concept of  , or rather how we as human beings learn, we have a workshop coming up in Stavanger in Norway, from the fourth to the sixth of October. The idea of this workshop is to give some practical methods and tools using the framework of social psychology of risk to help people become our I would say invalid, say bleeders become a little bit more deliberate and strategic about understanding and influencing culture. So you can expect a lot of practical exercises, group work, tools, methods that would actually help you to understand culture. I hope you can join us there is all the details on our website novellus.solutions/events. Please check it out. And we hope you can make it and we He would love to have you with us.