The ethics of risk and safety: Conversations with Dr. Rob Long

April 21, 2021



What do you do when someone gets injured at work? Do you think about the paperwork that should follow or do you genuinely care about attending to the needs of the person who is hurt? In this episode, Dr Robert Long, an internationally renowned social psychologist takes us on an intellectual journey to understand the importance of Care ethics in safety and risk. At the core of Care Ethics is the morality of personhood, community, care and helping. Dr Long warns us that the safety industry is known for its ideology of zero which locks it into counting, mechanics, regulation and policing, all common to a Masculinist Ethic. As such, it loses out on attending to the most basic human need for care and compassion.

Useful Links:

Books by Dr. Robert Long:

  • Following-Leading in Risk – A humanizing dynamic
  • For the love of Zero – Human fallibility and risk
  • Real Risk – Human discerning and risk
  • Risky Conversations – The law, social psychology and risk
  • Risk makes sense – Human judgement and risk

can be found at: Dr Robert Long – Executive Director – Human Dymensions (Including Free downloads)


Further information

Rob Long [00:00:06] You know, I don’t get asked to speak to people, no one in no one in safety wants to have a talk to me or discuss anything that I do or write. I write blogs and books. And yes, I have never had a conversation or a podcast, with anyone in the industry, other than you, in 22 years of doing this. the safety industry is a very closed, miss educated form of organizing, that keeps within its own club and because the club is based upon an ideology of compliance, anything that’s non-compliant, is deemed either unsafety, or non-safety. So, I think many people deem me to be anti-safety or non-safety. So, I just don’t get asked to speak to anyone because I’m not in the club.

Nippin Anand [00:00:52] Welcome to another episode of Embracing Differences with me Nippin Anand. This podcast series is meant to bring you different perspectives and concepts in safety. The idea really is to create space for thinking and reflection, not to reinforce any grand theories or our prior knowledge on a subject. The aim is to learn and grow, not to remain stagnant. And of course, as I keep saying there is no reason for you to believe me or any so-called expert but keep an open mind and be prepared to challenge your beliefs if you truly want to learn more than what you knew yesterday.

[00:01:31] This is a very special episode for me. I am speaking with Dr Rob Long – the author of more than half-a-dozen books and a world-renowned expert in social psychology of risk and safety. Rob lives in Australia and apart from being a safety and risk expert he has moved five different professions – five different careers. How daring! Most people change one or maximum two career streams in their lives and even that proves so challenging. Huge respect for you, Rob.

But did you notice the opening sentence of this episode? I find it so difficult to absorb that we chose to ignore Rob’s wisdom of 22 years and 5 different careers simply because he thinks differently. And at whose loss? Of course, ours – he continued to learn and grow and we missed all of that!

[00:02:34] It’s the reason I started this podcast series, I want to engage with everyone whose views have been marginalized simply because it does not fit our world views. To be honest, it does not surprise me. When we first met with Captain Francesco Schettino from the Costa Concordia and spoke to him, leading experts and institutions thought it was a crazy idea and for a while, we were seen to be the crazy people in the village by the so-called safety experts in the maritime world. As for me, it was the best thing I did to myself, I learnt so much that I would have missed otherwise.

It proves the point that we are humans and we don’t like people who look, think or behave differently from us. And in the safety profession, it gets even worse thanks to the level of education for entering into the profession.

[00:03:31] But you know what – I am very hopeful that this is changing and it is changing for the better. So hopefully, Rob and people like Rob who think differently – their message will be heard far and wide.

In today’s episode Rob talks about ethics. The ethics of risk and safety, a topic that I find so relevant especially with so many emerging theories and concepts.

Rob reminds us that when someone is hurt, the first thing is not to ask the question, whether he or she filled the paperwork or not. The first question to ask is – are you OK? Do you need some support? Let’s see where you are hurt and get you to a safe place.

Why is it so difficult to ask this question? Let’s here from Rob. I am so excited about this episode.

Nippin Anand [00:04:23]: I worked the safety inspector for many years, when I was six or seven years of the North Sea area in the UK, which is where I am in in the north of Scotland. And I saw some naivety around the way risk and safety is managed.

Rob Long [00:04:32]: Naivety! That’s kind.

Well, it’s interesting, you know, I don’t get asked to speak to people, no one in no one in safety wants to have a talk to me or discuss anything that I do or write. I write blogs and books. And yes, I have never had a conversation or a podcast, with anyone in the industry, other than you, in 22 years of doing this.

Nippin Anand [00:05:10]: Wow! And why is that? What’s your view?

Rob Long [00:05:13]: Well, you’re a cultural anthropologist. So, the safety industry is a very closed, mis-educated form of organizing, that keeps within its own club and because the club is based upon an ideology of compliance, anything that’s non-compliant, is deemed either unsafety, or non-safety. So, I think many people deem me to be anti-safety or non-safety. So, I just don’t get asked to speak to anyone. Because I’m not in the club.

Nippin Anand [00:05:48]: At one level, I’m surprised at another level. I’m not, let’s put it this way. But I thought that, for all the discussions around contemporary safety sciences, as some people would call it, there is lots of people who are opening up to new ideas. And I think your work is very, extremely, very well situated. And I struggle to understand that.

Rob Long [00:06:11]: No one’s interested. So, for example, there’s not one single person in the whole safety differently movement, who has even made a phone call or an email to say, Rob, can we understand your work? And that’s from the so-called people who somehow seem to describe themselves as being different than traditional safety. But when it comes to traditional orthodox safety itself, now, there’s no interest at all in anything that I do. None, none at all.

Nippin Anand [00:06:42]: But you know, Rob, I find it very interesting, because I have followed one of the biggest accidents in my lifetime, which is the capsizing of the passenger ship Costa Concordia. And what’s amazing and interesting to me is that when I met this captain, five years after the accident, the first thing that he said to me was, “you’re the first person who came to talk to me at a professional level, five years after the accident.” And I find it interesting that if you want to understand and improve anything, as a result of an accident, why wouldn’t you want to speak to that person?

Rob Long [00:07:18]: Well, the, the idea of critical thinking is, is never discussed in the industry of safety. So, you won’t find anywhere in the world. Anyone who comes from in orthodox safety, who comes from your backgrounds, which is cultural anthropology, so you’re not going to find anyone in the safety world who’s read anything about critical theory or cultural theory, that’s just not in the way they read. So, the safety industry is a very closed mis-educated industry. If you look at the, the training platforms of the industry, and the way they train people in safety, I’ve never seen an industry that is so closed and so blind, to the reality of different disciplines and forms of knowledge. So, for example, the curriculum in Australia, if you want to become a safety person, probably is the narrowest of any group I’ve ever come across. So, they don’t know anything that you know, sociology, no, psychology, no, any of the foundations which would be considered mandatory in the education of a nurse or a teacher, or a lawyer or anyone who is professional is not in any of that education training for a safety person.

[00:08:38]: I’ve worked in universities quite a bit as well, I’ve worked in five universities, it’s considered foundational to give a first-year nurse or a teacher a very broad transdisciplinary knowledge. So, they come to their discipline of nursing from a broad base. But that’s not the case in safety. It’s a compliance industry. It’s a, it’s a policing industry. And most people who are trained in, in work, health and safety are usually mis educated, and they just end up policing regulations, they end up recording injury rates. And so, mis education is the best way I can describe it. But then again, when you set up an industry based upon compliance, anyone who challenges that compliance or challenges the mentality of, of the industry itself, is usually demonized and put outside of orthodoxy. So, most people see me as being anti safety or, or against the industry, which, of course, is not my tradition.

[00:09:54]: I grew up in a, in a very, it was considered normal to be critical of various things. And it was deemed educational, to allow critics to raise questions and to question assumptions in various parts of the professions I’ve worked in. So, I’ve worked in five different professions, I’ve had seven different careers, not different positions, but actually completely different careers. So, when safety uses the word, ‘professional’, they have no idea what they’re using, I don’t see safety as a profession. And the use of that word profession needs an application. And I don’t see even an ethical application for what safety has created. It emerged originally, the safety industry emerged originally out of engineering, and, and it emerged out of science. And it still carries those very hard, object focus hasn’t focused directions in what it does. And it hasn’t yet grown away from its history. So even if there’s a big event like Costa Concordia, it’s kind of like sending the engineers and do an inquiry, which is why they don’t find anything, they only find what they want to find. And so, I never call safety professional, I never use the word professional, with safety, because you simply can’t compare the education of a safety person, to a teacher or a nurse or a lawyer, you simply can’t compare it. I’ve worked in a number of different professions, both as a public servant, I’ve worked in, not non-government organizations. So, I worked in the profession of, of clergy, I worked in the profession as an education professional. And I then came into or was brought into the safety world, from those professions, as a research and development person originally, for a safety company. And when I first came in, I could not believe what I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, it was, it was ridiculous.

[00:12:25]: I then started raising questions from the very start of, you know, what is this weird thing that people are calling the safety industry or whatever? And, then from the day I started questioning and writing blogs and books, there was this, there’s this crazy divide that there are these people that either like what I do and say it resonates with how they think and they’re stuck in an industry which they can’t change. Or you’ve got these people who demonize me as a critic who’s non-compliant, and somehow seems to be demonized as not caring about safety. The funny thing is, is probably I care much more about safety than they do because of that criticism, because I come from a discipline that says that the criticism, if accepted and debated will always lead to something better. But I think the safety industry is now in bit of a death spiral because it’s stuck in this zero nonsense, this zero ideology. And no one is allowed to question in because it’s being made a kind of religious Shibboleth in a in a culture. And so they’ve now anchored so much to this, this this zero thing that they don’t even know how either unethical or unrealistic they are.

In the linguistics of safety if you study that now, which is another background of mine, if you look at all of the linguistics of this movement of the safety industry since 2017, when they basically adopted zero as the global mantra for the industry, the stupidity and the ignorance and the gobbledygook that these people speak. You know, you simply couldn’t say to a teacher – why don’t you make perfection your goal for every student, say that to a teacher and see what a teacher would say, I mean, setting a goal of perfection, for a classroom of students, it would actually, it would actually lead to being brutal to every kid in the class.

[00:14:48]: And, of course, perfectionism is a mental health disorder listed on the DSMV 5. So, it’s a globally listed psychological disorder, the expectation of perfection. And yet here we have an industry that sets perfection as its goal, and I just go, you won’t be able to change this once it’s been deeply set within safety culture. And so, in May in Spain, I love Spain, I’d go to Spain tomorrow. But in Spain, in May, the global safety industry is going to meet again, and it’s all about zero again, they just, it just never going to grow up. And I guess with talking to you, one of the things which troubles me the most is, is that this industry is never spoken about ethics, they there is nowhere in the world, in the safety industry, where anyone has even taken seriously, the notion of ethics. So, poorly educated. So, in Australia, there’s a there’s a group called the Australian Institute of Health and Safety or something. And they’ve developed a body of knowledge. And of course, the body of knowledge is a book of chapters and concepts. And it’s really just a political tool. So that so that this group can maintain a profession. So, this becomes the bounded knowledge of the safety industry.

[00:16:19]: So, you create a book of knowledge, and says this knowledge means what our industry knows. And lastly, they published a chapter on ethics, Chapter 38. And it’s one of the most appalling pieces of nonsense I’ve ever read in the area of ethics. Now, I was involved in ethics, not just the study of ethics, but the practical enactment of ethics in organizations 45 years ago. So, I’ve been working in that area. And of course, you will understand that if I had once trained in clergy that, that the philosophy of ethics and ethics as a philosophy is foundational to theology. So, I come into this industry with a background that not many have. And if you look across all the academics, in the safety world, all these people who are paraded out there, you know, it’s interesting that that none of them have written anything on the nature of ethics or the application of ethics, to the challenges of risk. And of course, one of the biggest challenges of risk is the way we tackle it the way we manage it. And ethics is about that first part of the sentence the way – In what way Do we tackle risk? The method that we adopt to tackle risk is that is their ethic, that method is their ethic. And we either do it in a way that humanizes people. Or if you can go to the polar opposite, we do it in a way that dehumanizes people. And if we are in the process of safety, and our outcome is dehumanizing people, turning them into objects, turning them into things to control, then we end up enacting an unethical approach to risk. So, I simply started asking the question to people a few years ago, what is your ethic of risk? And most people, they don’t even know what I’m talking about. And so, you’ve done cultural anthropology. Was there a PhD? You did?

Nippin Anand [00:18:42]: That’s right. My, my work was mostly in social science in sociology. And, and my idea, what I studied in my PhD was social sciences, and particularly identity, professional identity. That’s the bit that really interested me. But then I fell in love with cultural anthropology much after I finished my PhD.

Rob Long [00:18:19]: Well, so even when you do a PhD, the University forces you to do it ethically. As you’re preparing your PhD, before you can even start it, you have to ensure that your methodology is ethical. That’s not what a safety person studies, a safety person thinks, well, as long as I get zero injuries, whatever I do to get that is ethical. And it makes a philosophy of the ends justifies the means. That’s right. So, most safety people don’t even know that they’ve got this end justifies the mean, this utilitarian philosophy that drives what they do. Well, the end does not justify the means. And we have throughout history, so many cases, where this philosophy of the end justifies the means. This philosophy justifies the most wicked, disport, brutalism and vicious behavior, because are we get the end what we want, that those with the most power, get what they desire, and the way they get, it doesn’t matter. Now, that’s very much the ethic of safety.

[00:20:11]: The other ethic that is connected to safety, is what’s called a deontological ethic, or, or a natural law ethic. And so, we ended up with this crazy idea of somehow people mystically know what to do, and how to do it. And that’s kind of natural law, ethics, or deontological ethic. And that comes out of a philosopher Emmanuel Kant, etc. And there’s quite a history to that. If you look at this, this ethic chapter written by the Australian Institute of Health and Safety, that’s what that chapter is, it uses language, like do the right thing and it also uses language, check your gut. So somehow, in your gut, you know what’s right and wrong. Which is, of course, crazy, because you don’t, but you can go to many places in the safety industry, where they talk about common sense, and that somehow people commonly know what to do, and know how to do it rightly. Which, of course, is very interesting, because if that’s the case, we would need no inductions and training and safety.

[00:21:10]: If people naturally know, through some mystical process through what’s called natural law, what to do, then we would need no skill development or anything like this, because we would all innately know what to do. And that’s what this chapter on ethics is, is written for. Now, I don’t know what they have in the UK or the US. But this particular chapter doesn’t mention any of the things which are the foundation of ethics. So, you would know as a cultural anthropologist, then you’d know through your, your, your interest in identity, which was in your PhD, that the foundation of ethics is personhood. The question is, who is the human person? They’re very simple question that’s studied as 101 in education in nursing because if you’re a nurse, and you can’t enact what you do, ethically, and ethics is huge in nursing, my daughter’s a nurse. And when I was assisting her with writing essays, ethics was the foundation that was the very first subject they studied. And so, you can’t, you can’t have a patient in a bed and get the outcome you think you want with a method that is not ethical.

[00:22:45]: So that’s one profession. But in safety, that’s not even discussed, there is no discussion anywhere, globally. You won’t find it, there is no discussion of who is the human person, what is this identity, that’s all pushed to one side, we all to speak about the outcome. Wouldn’t it be good when we get injuries to zero. You use the word naive, I just think it’s incredibly stupid, very poorly educated. And, and if you look at people who even are well educated, within the safety sphere, even they are not talking about ethics, they’re talking about other things. But you won’t find anywhere in the world, no one in the world except I published in, in this book, this particular book, the foundational book I wrote, no one discusses even the very foundational things of personhood, and language like, if you were to read about ethics, one of the first things you would learn is about a philosophy called care ethics. It comes out of feminist kind of post structuralist background. But care ethics gets no mention in the institute’s chapter, on ethics in their body of knowledge, which is just bizarre, because if you did a study of ethics, in any profession, like teaching, or nursing, caring for people, and care ethics is foundational.

[00:24:08]: But when you come to safety, it’s not motivated by an ethic of care is motivated by an unethic of counting. So, you know, here’s this industry, counting data, and thinking the data is a representation of what it is to do safety. And it’s actually unethical. Zero is unethical. It’s not an ethical language. And it’s not an ethical goal. But that’s, that’s where it is. So I put up my hand and say, well, I know a bit about ethics, here are my questions. And basically, people say, “We’re not interested”.

Nippin Anand [00:24:46]: And you’re not interested, because as you very rightly said, we’re all working towards a predetermined goal. That’s, that’s the crux of it. I mean, of all the work that I’ve done, the show is very little smaller than story with you. I used to be an auditor, and at one stage, I boarded a ship. In the audit report, there’s only two things you can do, you can either write a non-conformance, or you can write a mild form of non-conformance, which we will call observation. So, I wanted to commend the ship’s crew for doing something really good, which I felt was not worthy of bringing it to the companies notice. What’s interesting to me to date of, you know, five years I’ve been thinking about it is that that Captain did not accept that observation from me, because it counts towards something which is which goes against his performance. Isn’t that incredibly powerful?

Rob Long [00:25:38]: Yes, yeah.

I find this, this inability to learn, is connected to a kind of a political understanding of black and white, who’s in who’s out? You think if you went to a captain, and you said, look, your safety could improve. And my observation says that this and this would actually improve that you would think someone would welcome that and then say, thank you for your criticism, I will now get a much better and a much more ethical practice out of what you’ve offered me. Thank you very much. And of course, this is how we run the profession of education. In education, all criticism is deemed as beneficial to your development. So even if you don’t like it, you still have to listen to it and accept it and see that there is some degree of benefit in the debate, even if you disagree with the debate. That’s not present, that is not the culture of this industry. And I think it is maybe 50 or 70 years behind the professions of nursing, and medicine, and in education, at least, it will take that long for to see a cultural change, it won’t be in my lifetime. Because they set the wrong foundation for an industry. And once you set those foundations, it’s extremely hard to shift. Such a cultural thing. And that’s, in fact, even the purpose of turning cultural so that it moves beyond their own forms of processes. I don’t think most people in safety even know that they’re doing things that are not ethical. I don’t think most of the people who are in even executive positions in the industry, like you know, the Global Head of Irtion, these sorts of people. All they talk is about a number. It’s all about zero. So, there’s no discussion of any of the things that matter.

[00:27:53]: See why it was another talking session, in the conference in May, about the nature of personhood? What is it to be a person? No one’s talking about that? That’s of no interest whatsoever? It’s let’s get 1% less injuries, you know, let’s get 1% less this year, and its all-numerical object focus counting stuff. So, I think they’re about 50 years, to 70 years away from becoming professional. But they’re not many agree with me. But I’m not in I’m not in their club. You know, I don’t care about the club. And I’m not interested in the club. But certainly not a profession, and I have no interest in it.

Nippin Anand [00:28:41]: Great, but what’s your view about some of these evolving concepts? Like you mentioned safety differently, and new view and safety to what’s your view on these, some of them do criticize the idea of, of the kind of things that you’ve been talking about Rob.

Rob Long [00:29:01]: Well, yeah, it is interesting. If you look at the language, of the safety, definitely safety II. And all these kinds of propose movements or, or ideas, often there’s a, there’s a well-intentioned attitude, these people know there’s something wrong, but they don’t know what to do. So, they do know how to question traditional safety. But then the next question is, what’s the method that you replace it with? What do you put in place? And of course, the movement started with just a few ideas and a few questions by a few people, mostly academic people, but not necessarily so in some areas and it developed a kind of a fan base or another club of sorts. There are still many questions that that club is not asking or that group is not asking. But if you look at their language alone, the language they use is no different from traditional safety. So, one of the global safety people who’s in S II, or whatever it is, I think he’s name is Eric Hollnagel or something like that on engineering resilience, which is nonsense.

[00:30:33]: I mean, they’ve just gone back to engineering. It’s still an engineering, focus, and even in language. So, when you look at Sidney Decker’s three models or mottos in the safety differently thing there’s nothing different in their language. It’s the same the same things. So, the s to the harp and all the things that have developed, of course, is a frustration with the fact that this movement that has questioned traditional safety has not yet dealt with the method on what you do next. And it’s a movement away from traditional safety that has yet to develop a method that is different. So, in essence, they have an ethical problem as well. So, you don’t find in any of the S II, literature, again, questions of ethics, or personhood, or care ethics, or helping or any of that sort of stuff. It’s just not in their language, it’s still back to the focus on systems and the focus on science, and the focus on mechanics. And so, they’ve created in some places, different systems. But the philosophy and the methodology are exactly the same.

The language of differently is the umbrella it sits under, but I can’t see much that is very different in what they actually do. Its still systems focus, it’s still engineering focused. Its still objects focused, it’s still about quantitative things, not qualitative things. And, and so it’s a fine line between this movement, and I think bigger questions of ethics from personhood, which of course, is not in their language.

Nippin Anand [00:32:19]: It’s interesting, you should say that, again, I can only relate it with my own little world. So, one experience that comes to mind is that I started to develop a fascination for safety II some time ago. And I, I started to practice it in a way that, you know, how do you understand everyday work? And that’s one of the things so, this comes from my limited understanding of the world.  I went to the ship and wanted to understand from a crew member, how the ship, how a particular component of the ship really works. And I remember asking the question, can you explain to me how to launch the life lifeboat? I looked at me, and he had something else to say. And I said, is it something bothering you? And he said, can you come to one side, I want to talk to you something else. And I said, what is it and he said that it’s been six months, the company has imposed an income tax on us as seafarers. And that income tax means that I now need to pay 30% of the tax on my income. Because I’m sailing in the UK waters, this is a Filipino Seaman.

[00:33:29]: And as he started to mourn, Rob, there were six other Filipinos who joined him in that in that mourning. And they all started to complain about this one thing that they had on their mind for a very long time. So, at first, I felt very, very irritated that, you know, this was not what I was here for. This was not my question. Why are you asking me this question? And they mourn for about 25, good minutes, 30 minutes, and I felt I’m losing a lot of time, I need to concentrate on the real work. I didn’t realize that the end of mourning what this guy had to say said that several people from the offices have visited us. And everyone comes with an agenda, a checklist, a procedure, they want to validate and go back. Nobody has cared to listen to us, it’s the first time that somebody is actually listening to us. We know that you can’t do anything about our situation. But the fact that you gave us 25 minutes of your time means a lot to us. It was a kind of a life changing moment, in some ways. Because, you know, what am I doing here? I’m the custodian of safeties, as if I call it that way, I should care for people. And if they don’t feel listened to, I’ve miserably failed in my job. what the magic that happened, which most companies don’t realize is that it’s, it’s very mutual, you don’t understand the need of the people, why should they care for your needs? It just doesn’t work that way. That experience has been with me for no, I find it very interesting. What you say just now actually, is if you it’s all about care, it’s all about understanding human needs. And if you don’t get past that, how can you expect people to do what you want them to do?

Rob Long [00:35:06]: Well, you see, it’s interesting. If you look at the S II as a movement or group of people, there is no methodology of care either. There’s no that’s just not the language that is used. When you’ve got one of their global leaders using language like engineering resilience, what he’s talking about in his book, and I read the book is not about humans. It’s about resilience in a system. So, the focus of this too is still on the system. Not on the people in organizations.

[00:35:38]: On the scale of listing and yet in everything I do it’s where we start it’s the foundation it’s the very foundation but you won’t find it in this too it’s not of interest to them what of his interest to them is the system so you end up with a silly book called engineering ’cause it’s not about engineering and it’s not about resilience either it’s the club that doesn’t really address the foundations of the resilience of humans and so if we want to talk about the resilience of humans and do you have any experience in background at all in ethics you would never use the word engineering. It would not be in your vocabulary so I don’t see in the S II movement other than a few questions it raises about traditional safety and it did it still doesn’t know where to go next.

[00:36:49]: I think that a good dose of cultural anthropology or a good dose of ethics or a good dose of critical theory might be helpful but you don’t read anything about that either so it’s going to take a long time and of course you may have been originally interested in S2, it triggered those questions but now you’ve got to the stage of your career where you probably moved away from that and are now asking the questions- Well, what next? What do I do? I’ve always been interested in the enactment of safety, how was it enacted and if you come into my workplace and you’ve got your checklist on your iPad or your audit list that you go now if I come onto a ship and here are all the things I’ve got to tick off, for me, that’s not safety!

My very first thing I would do is I would go to the Filipino mariners and ask them an open-ended question and listen to what they want to tell me, not what my list tells me to put them in. I don’t see auditing as very helpful at all in the risk and safety industry. I’ve had a little bit to do with mariners and mariners from my perspective are usually highly underpaid, third world workers and that’s all they can do and they live a pretty unsafe miserable existence and no one listens to them. So, you jump on a ship and its Filipinos, Africans, it’s Russians, it’s Romanians you know it’s people who are very poor, who get manipulated by a large company and they have no power at all. So, the first things you do when you come from my background which is social psychology close to cultural anthropology but a little bit to the side, the very first question you ask and every sociologist ask this question if this is not the question that’s ever asked inside me by the way no one in safety ever asks this question is this:

Where is the power and who has it?

Foundational for cultural anthropology, sociology, psychology, social psychology, theology and so on. That’s where you start and that’ll tell you how the politics works, how the ethics works and how the personhood words. You come into an organization and say I’m the auditor, I have all the power I will tell you what to do, here’s my list! I’ll just tell you and you’ll be safe! That’s not what the safety industry does. The opposite is the case.

There is no ethic of listening. ISA, IIASH whatever it is there is nothing written at all on an ethic of listening. It is all about telling. There’s a huge problem.

Nippin Anand [00:40:36]: To me I lived the first 29 years of my life as a very poor listener or I would say even more until I was halfway through my PhD. Somewhere half way through my PhD I started to realize how important it is to listen more and talk less. If you go back to the idea should be that way the foundation of good auditing but you don’t see that people generally but not receptive to listen.

Rob Long [00:41:08]: Look at the kinds of people get attracted to site and get attracted toward it personality profile psychological profile its people who are attracted to safety and attracted to auditing come from one particular psychological type and it confirms through confirmation bias what they already know and so again we’re back to the problem of learning and of change and so if you have all these people and it confirms their authority and power that they are the one to tell you how to be safe then you don’t need to listen. You just go through your list and everything will get magically better and then you leave the ship and let them all go to their own devices which of course doesn’t work.

Nippin Anand [00:42:05]: Indeed, and then you end up in two different islands, one of power in one of knowledge and they never interact with each other.

Rob Long [00:42:14]: Correct and see the question of where is the power and who has it is the foundation of all ethical questions that’s where you should start so if you want to study and I think of risk that should be your first question where is the power and who has, and then of course you go to the next one with what do they do to protect that power, to protect that political power.

Then when you look at the risk and safety associations and their politics, they don’t even know that they’re doing it and they don’t even know that they don’t question they don’t listen and they don’t think critically. Then we’re back to the start of this merry-go-round and of course it explains why people in these organizations want to maintain their power and want to maintain this very tightly coupled association, based upon two things counting and policing systems.

Nippin Anand [00:43:26]: It’s so interesting you say that as part of a recent study that I just finished we look at as group of social scientists and psychologists we looked at some 31,000 reports in near reporting systems and hazard observation system and one thing that came out loud and clear was this whole idea of reporting is nothing but a mechanism for social control. How many times you would see used as a weapon against people who are lower in hierarchy, lower in power and my question is that how often would you would you point out in the near miss reporting system that today I saw the chief engineer not wearing a helmet. But how often do you see the oiler or the wiper not wearing the right personal protective equipment? Almost always! But this is just one example but this whole data was replete with examples of social control in one way or the other. So, power manifests in everything when we call it safety.

Rob Long [00:43:34]: Yes, but nobody talks about it. There was a funny conference run before COVID by the local Association and they had a conference called politics and power or something like that and not one person in the conference spoke about politics and power. It was ridiculous and you cause if you studied in any of the other professions, you would study at least a little bit of critical theory or neo-Marxist theory. Whether would you agree with that doesn’t matter but the foundation of critical theory is this idea you’ve mentioned of cultural reproduction, which is the whole purpose of a system and power and politics and often the propaganda that goes with that politics. So, the purpose of these associations is often the politics of control and processes of control so your audits and your checklists and your hazard assessments and the risk assessments are part of this like your near miss reporting it’s really a form of cultural reproduction.

[00:45:38]: To read Michael Apple or Henry Giroux or any of the critical theorists they would tear it to bits and then say, “Well this is a mechanism not of actually developing safety. It’s a mechanism of manipulating people to get an outcome that you think should be over and above the way you do it or the ethic in which you do it!” and so I often use in my work I use the word brutalism and many of these processes are brutal on humans. If I was to speak to a mariner that is a brutal job and it’s terrible what we do to these people you know it’s just terrible what we do to these people and no one seems to care about it. It just all seems like this is the way it is going and do your audit leave the ship and I’ve done my job you! They don’t question for two seconds I’ve got a human being in front of me, what is it that makes them resilient? What is it that I can do that can help know there’s no language of helping either?

If you go to teachers or nurses, they call themselves a helping profession. Helping is essential for a professional that’s not in safety! It’s not about helping so I despair at what they doing.

Nippin Anand [00:47:11]: Very often what you see is the people who are removed in time and space absolutely ignorant about the context about the understanding of the operation telling the person with lots of expertise lots of knowledge contextual knowledge experience wisdom telling them what they should be doing it creates such a disconnect in that conversation. I have an example actually of somebody saying that a couple of paint cans, you see that inspector coming just put a couple of paint cans near the emergency escape, feed his ego so he doesn’t give us a hard time. That’s the kind of situation you end up into. Very counterproductive, very unhealthy.

How would you like to summarize this discussion?

Rob Long [00:47:58]: Well, I don’t know who your audience is and so I’ve just been myself and that’s all I ever do I just be myself. I would have argued for some time but the best way to do safety is not to read anything in the safety literature but to read outside of it. So, if you are a person who reads read sociology read critical theory, read education authors, read ethical authors completely outside of your discipline so that you can think and grow. I’ve not read anything in the safety literature in the last 10 years that I give you $0.05 for. I just wouldn’t do it. If you want to be an ethical safety person, you have to stop this unquestioning compliance to the culture that this industry has created for itself. So, I would challenge the listeners to read and listen to things outside of that safety box, to people like yourself or people who are asking tough questions. For example, that is pretty radical to call any miss reporting system a form of cultural reproduction.

[00:49:32]: Often safety people will be like, “Oh, well you know Nippin is just an academic he doesn’t know what he’s talking about and so then I don’t have to listen to you.” So, we demonize the messenger and we miss the message which is very much what safety does and so we missed the whole point of growth and learning and development because you get demonized in the real message which you sent for them is not listened to. So, I would encourage any of your people who listen to you to, if you have questions about risk and safety and the ethic in which it’s done that you need to really look inside what you’ve been told is the way to do risk and safety for many years, to look outside and then start to grow and develop and start to move in a more ethical way of enacting the way you tackle risk.

Now you can’t do that without a method and so you know it’s like the safety too movement grappling for what do we do next, they’ve had the question but they’ve gone back to old methods. So, it served a good purpose to raise questions but it’s very important that one can turn next and whatever you do next has to be based upon an ethic, most fundamental questions of:

Where is the power?
Who has it who?
Who is sustaining it and how was it enacted?
Who is the person? What is personhood?
Why is a thing such as care or help foundational to that question and yet there not being spoken about?

So how can we create a method of care and helping in risk and safety? How can we do that? That’s the kind of question we should ask and that should lead you to a method that’s not focused on policing systems and power etc. So, I would leave on that challenge and most likely the people already listened to you are already ready to move. They wouldn’t switch on and listen to you if they’re not already ready to move all of those who are in one of these clubs, they’re not going to listen to you and me they simply want to be stuck in this confirmation bias cycle and confirm the same thing: policing numbers and policing regulation. So, I’ll leave you with that.

Nippin Anand [00:52:03] What do you think?

Listening to Rob and his pearls of wisdom, I am reminded of my own story, in fact many stories. I even wrote an article recently where I share my own experience about ignoring the human needs in our attempt to understand the so-called ‘human factors’.

The story goes something like this:

A few months ago, I visited a ship all excited to put my knowledge about ‘learning from what goes well’ into practice. I thought I knew perfectly well what I needed to make it work. Instead of focusing on accidents, I will focus on everyday work, pay careful attention to the context, observe the gap between documented manuals and ‘real’ work and encourage people to talk about what really works. Simple.

Like an overenthusiastic safety inspector, I approached an able seaman and asked, “Raymond*, can you talk me through how you lower the lifeboat from the start to the end?” After a long and uncomfortable silence, Raymond replied, “I will tell you everything about the lifeboat, but I want to share something else first if it’s OK, sir. The company has introduced a new tax on our earnings. As seafarers, we never had to pay taxes on our income before and it’s not small money. It’s almost 30% of our earning, and it puts us in a very difficult situation.” Raymond continued for a few minutes while other crew members joined us in the conversation. By now I was starting to get irritated. This was not really my question I said to myself. I was there to learn from what goes well.

But then I started listening to Raymond and something fascinating happened that took me by surprise. Nearly 35 minutes into his moaning, Raymond looked into my eyes and said, “I know you are here as a visitor. You can do nothing about our situation, but you care to listen. Thanks for listening, nobody from the office listens to us.”

By now, Raymond appeared far more relaxed. In a friendly manner, he said, “Sir, let’s talk about the lifeboat now.” We spoke at length about the entire process from preparation, to launching and lowering of the lifeboat. Raymond told me about the problem with the cranking handle used for hoisting the boat in an emergency. He highlighted the extra precautions that were needed during hoisting the boat (because the original fuse on the davit winch motor had been replaced with a fuse of much higher amperage). Several other issues came up in our discussion such as communication difficulties with hand-held radios and the problem with monitoring the boat whilst being stowed in position. Put simply, it made perfect sense how the design and operating problems were being compensated for by the crew during routine maintenance and drills. This to me was a perfect example of learning from what goes well – the principles of safety II.

But how did I achieve that? I achieved that by listening to Raymond’s needs, by treating him as a human being before I could try and apply any of my human factor’s concept from my toolkit. At that time, I did not even know that I was following Rob’s wisdom. Now I have a much better understanding of what ethics of risk and safety is all about and in the next few weeks I will read more about it. It’s so much fun to learn something new, isn’t it?

Thank you, Rob, we learnt so much from you and I am looking to sit down with you again very soon to learn more. There is so much more to learn from you.

Nippin Anand [00:56:53]: Thank you for taking the time to listen to this podcast. I hope the time you spent was worthwhile. If you think the podcast has made you think, slow down and reflect, I have achieved my purpose. Please share it with others in your community so that messages reaches far and wide.

I spend a lot of time thinking, researching and producing meaningful content. If there is a specific top you’d wish to know more about, please let me know. If I can, I will make every attempt to create something meaningful and valuable to you. If you have a topic that you would like to discuss with me, please feel free to be in touch. Particularly if there is something you don’t agree with. Disagreements are always fun.

I wish to also remind you that all my podcasts, related reference material and transcript for each podcast is available on my website, www.novellus.solutions. You can also get in touch with me on the same website or through LinkedIn, Twitter or my personal website, www.nippinanand.com.