The Safety Profession can be like a Priesthood

Lincoln Eldrige, who probably wouldn’t want to be called a ‘safety professional,’ suggested to me some years ago that the safety profession is like a priesthood. I have always considered this an intriguing assertion, and finally decided to dig into it a bit more. What I found was fascinating parallels between belief systems that manage anxieties and hopes even a post-secular world, and the credentialism of a new priesthood that is (self-)ordained to assuage and inspire those anxieties and hopes. But first I found strong parallels between belief systems of different times that are intended to make us feel ‘safe.’ Let me tell you about my findings.

Belief systems to keep us safe

Humans, says research, have an unlimited capacity for creating belief systems by which to live. Humans might also have a never-quenched need for such belief systems (Taylor, 2007). This is because belief systems answer fundamental, existential human needs. They help us understand why we suffer; they offer us solace and assurance, a sense of security. They give us meaning, direction, an order to hold onto (Ehrman, 2008). And they give us rules. This doesn’t mean that they are static. As our societies develop and evolve, so do our belief systems (Wright, 2009). What we believe in, and which rules we choose to make and follow, is never disconnected from the concrete problems of human existence, religious scholar Karen Armstrong (1993) concluded. Belief systems are an ongoing answer to them. When belief systems are no longer useful, when they fail to deal with the practical concerns of everyday life, they eventually get changed. “God is dead,” Nietzsche proclaimed boldly in 1882, but then he added, “but the way people are, there may still for millennia be caves in which has shadow will be shown.”[1] This realization is behind skepticism about secularization as a mere loss of beliefs. Shadows of those beliefs, or more, are everywhere. In an increasingly secular age, it isn’t that we stop believing, invoking moral law or following rules. Rather, we change what we believe in, what we consider to be moral law, and which rules we make and follow.

After proclaiming that God was dead, Nietzsche asked “how should we comfort ourselves?” He recognized that the need for comfort was still there, but that we gradually had to change what supplied it. Where religious beliefs no longer prove useful in supplying answers to problems of safety and security, for instance, we start turning to something else. And that transition has been going on for a while:

The industrialization and resulting bureaucratization of American culture, organizational historians have described, eroded the authority of churches. In the 1890s railroads killed six to seven thousand persons each year. Worshippers recognized that they faced wrongdoers beyond their control. Churches could hardly admonish corporations effectively (Stearns, 1990, p. 536).

As Barry Turner concluded in the 1970’s, disasters were not acts of god, but “man-made” (1978). We really needed to start looking somewhere else to explain them, and to divine and predict and prevent them. The most visible changes have indeed occurred over the last forty years. It is not difficult to time the manifold and accelerating increase in the number of safety rules, statutes and regulations since the 1970’s (Saines et al., 2014; Townsend, 2013), and see it coincide with the decline of religious beliefs and church attendance in the West. This time frame also matches the growth of public spending on accident investigations (Stoop & Dekker, 2012). We seem to have increasingly turned to secular rules to keep us safe and secure, and to scientific explanations for why things go wrong. Science and secular institutions have picked up what religion could no longer credibly muster: the explanation of, and presumed mastery over, human misfortune.

This would fit social anthropologist Mary Douglas’ thinking about modernism and secularization. Modernism doesn’t necessarily lead to secularization, she argued. While church attendance and stated religious affiliation might indeed decline, it isn’t as if that leaves a vacuum. Because other belief systems, other rules, other authorities take up the newly vacated places. Like Emile Durkheim before her, Douglas believed that social relations drive the creation and congealing of ‘religious’ kinds of beliefs, principles, myths, rules and rituals. That happens in modern, secular institutions (such as compliance-driven bureaucratic organizations) too. Expressions of beliefs, principles, myths, rules and rituals change, but they don’t disappear with modernization (Douglas, 1992). Such mythmaking can be seen in Health and Safety today (Besnard & Hollnagel, 2014). What makes the myths ‘religious’ in kind, or at least a good secular stand-in, is for example:

  • Ideas and beliefs in safety are sometimes taken on faith and authority rather than empirical evidence. This might include the idea that a boss or supervisor who doesn’t follow the rules is devastating for a ‘safety culture’ (Marsh, 2013);
  • Social cohesion carried by ritual, myth and professed values. You can see this in so-called ‘safety share’ moments before executive meetings which resemble a kind of religious reflection, a mini-sermon on moral teachings, or a communal prayer. You can also see this on posters which piously proclaim that ‘safety is our number one priority’ all over a worksite;
  • Moral instruction and surveillance of behavior. You can recognize this in an organization’s insistence on having a ‘safety conversation’ with a colleague who didn’t do a take-five checklist before a simple task.
  • Rituals of confession, repentance and forgiveness (today called incident reporting, disclosure and implementation of recommendations, for example).

Such examples show that secularization is not a wholesale disengagement from beliefs, social rituals, myths and moral authority, but a re-casting and reorientation of them. Their reinvention both fits and helps shape the industrial, bureaucratic and capitalist relations of our era. As Nietzsche predicted in the 1880’s, religiosity continues to act in corporate and social life (Wood, 2015). In these ways, and others, “the structures of modern industrial society, despite great modifications in different areas and national cultures, produce remarkably similar situations for religious traditions and the institutions that embody these” (Berger, 1967, p. 113).

Belief systems give us authorities, priesthoods and rules

As I suggested above, Berger’s traditions and institutions, and Douglas’ rituals, myths, moral authority can all be recognized in workplace health and safety. Belief systems, independent of their origin or the human concerns they are organized around, give rise to institutions, to priesthoods, to authorities, and to rules. Once a particular human concern (say occupational safety, or mental health) starts congealing into a broader societal anxiety, it encourages a professionalization of the response to it (Gergen, 2013).

The rise of credentialism and moral authority

The phenomenon has been called credentialism, or occupational closure. It means that an occupation, or a set of activities and responsibilities, becomes closed to entry from outsiders, amateurs and otherwise unqualified people. The professionalization process itself tends to define what ‘qualification’ means and how it might be obtained (and how much the profession is willing to grant such qualifications to people still on the outside). Professionalization establishes norms, exclusive rights to sources of knowledge, hiring practices, codes of ‘professional’ conduct, and certification of people, programs, education, subcontractors, sites and more. It can stratify itself from the inside: demarcating several layers of professionals based on experience, seniority, length of service within the profession, or qualifications. Professional bodies take it on themselves to police members’ conduct and adherence to the procedures and norms it has established, and to rigorously patrolling the borders of their profession. Professionalization typically confers prestige on those who belong to the professional class, and tends to devalue or delegitimize the expertise of those who are not part of the class. Members of the professional class are encouraged (or sometimes even expected) to have a lifetime commitment to their field of work. Professionalization is obviously linked to price increases for the occupational services offered.

Credentialism is, of necessity, exclusivist. That’s why it’s called occupational closure: professionalization is a way of keeping people out of a particular occupation, and letting only a few select people in. Sociologists have documented how professionalization has been accompanied by a systematic exclusion of women from particular occupations, either as an unwitting result or even as a subliminal intention (Witz, 1990). The origins of occupational closure can be found deep in history. Medieval guilds were a prime example, of course. As associations of artisans or merchants, they controlled the practice of their craft in a particular jurisdiction (typically a town). They controlled the volume of work to be done, kept control over the manufacture and ownership of tools, and regulated the supply of materials. Guilds controlled access to their craft, and strictly policed the exercise of that craft. Fascinatingly, guilds have been associated with an ossification of practices. Almost nothing new got done inside of them, as they weren’t set up to allow innovation. They were basically closed systems and only accessible to those who surrendered to their way of doing things. Quality, skills and innovation all suffered under medieval guilds—not to mention competition and entrepreneurialism. In contrast, these things tended to blossom and flourish when and where guilds were abandoned (Ogilvie, 2011).

Safety takes professionalization and credentialism beyond what medieval guilds once did. The interesting thing is, when it comes to safety, we are willing to imbue its professional class with a moral authority to tell us what is right and wrong. That is where professionalism and credentialism transcend into a kind of priesthood. Not only does it retain the frills of professionalization, such as a hierarchical divide between the professionals and a deferential working class, or a specialized language meant to facilitate, distinguish and exclude. It also adds the kind of moral authority that has become unmoored from written laws (or that was never driven by such laws in the first place). Instead, this is an authority to say what is right and wrong that is premised on principles (nobody gets hurt today!), myths (if a supervisor doesn’t follow the rules, that destroys a safety culture), or fears (do the checklist or you’ll get reported). Safety professionals can tell workers to wear a hard hat on the flat plains of the Australian outback, for example, even though there is no exact written, conventionally established regulation in existence that says precisely that. Wearing the hard hat is right; not wearing it is wrong. Moral authority is the capacity—derived from occupational exclusivity, trust, respect, trepidation—to convince others how the world should be.

Ten golden rules

This is the kind of moral authority that produces ‘ten golden rules’ or other kinds of major safety rules (violation of which can carry the risk of dismissal). Many industries have such rules. Many have ten. Religions tended to have them, too (and in fact, ten was a not unusual number). Golden rules are derived from a moral authority that does not lend its legitimacy directly from conventionally established laws or regulations. They are introduced, followed and policed because they have become institutionalized as the right thing to do.

Judaism was, from what we know, the earliest ‘religion of rules.’ It had more rules than any other competing belief system at the time (and more than many since). And Hebrews actually took the trouble to write them all down over the course of, say, a millennium (Kugel, 2007). The brilliance of this arrangement was that it makes the belief system totalizing. Wherever you turn, whatever you do, whichever activity you are involved in right there and then (from entering a house to washing your clothes to preparing a meal), the belief system is there with you. It is literally totalizing, enveloping everything you do, and penetrating deeply into the smallest capillaries of your daily existence.

The aspiration of golden rules in various industries, on the face of it, is similar. They are context-independent (i.e. applicable always and everywhere) and minute. They are to be remembered and applied whatever you do and wherever you go. Ten golden rules (printed on little credit-sized cards) are often worn suspended on lanyards around workers’ necks. Carrying golden rules in that way is like the Jewish practice surrounding tefillin (or shel rosh). This involves attaching a small leather box containing Torah verses to the forehead or upper arm by observant Jews. The rules are always close at hand (or head) that way, and hopefully guide moral and practical choices throughout the day. Likewise, if a company posts its ten golden rules near entrances of sites and buildings, then this has parallels to the Mezuzah, a little case attached to the doorpost of Jewish homes, containing a parchment inscribed with specified Hebrew texts. Such practices are deeply meaningful, in ways both substantive and symbolic. Are life-saving rules in organizations today of a similar ilk? Look at a facetious comparison in the table.

You shall have no other gods than me You shall have no other number one priority than safety
You shall not make idols You shall not make idols out of anything except safety posters and fluoro vests
You shall not take the name of your god in vain You shall check and follow all safety procedures
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy Remember to report sick if you can’t be safe
Respect your father and your mother Respect your safety manager
You shall not murder You shall not become a fatality
You shall not commit adultery You shall not commit to productivity or efficiency
You shall not steal You shall only use tools and equipment you have checked out yourself
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor You shall immediately report witnessing unsafe situations
You shall not covet You shall wear your own Personal Protective Equipment

Ten commandments and ten safety rules—a facetious comparison

There is an important difference. It actually stands as a good reminder of the ahistoricity and utter overreach of current literal interpretations of lifesaving rules (as in: you get fired for being caught violating even one of them). Go back to Judaism as the (first) religion of rules. The Torah contains not ten, but 613 commandments. Yet what is missing is the word for ‘obey.’ It doesn’t exist in classical Hebrew. Instead, the word the Torah uses is shema (or lishmoa) which means many things, but not ‘to obey.’ Shema denotes—or includes—to listen, to hear, to attend, to understand, the internalize, to respond. This suggests a very different set of ways to engage with a ‘commandment,’ or a ‘rule:’ neither ruthless imposition of a rule, nor blind following of it. It is more like ‘living a rule,’ inviting people into a dialogic relationship with it as they go about meeting situation after situation. Judaism got this very early on: the idea of freedom within a frame, of context-dependence, of autonomy and the irreducable capacity and discretion of human moral choice. If we want to play safety as if it were a totalizing proto-religious system of rules, violations and consequences, we actually have yet a lot to learn. In particular, we have to learn some humility in the face of our own rule-driven hubris.

Can we do without?

So far, we haven’t shown the capacity to live without a belief system that gives us rules and myths and comfort. Belief systems surrounding workplace safety, with its professional class and myths and rules and practices, seem to confirm that secularization is probably never complete. Or that it is at least a complex process of trading and swapping and substituting and borrowing and renewing and rewriting and reinventing. We end up displacing one system and replacing it with another, intended in part to govern the same kinds of experiences, fears and concerns:

Modern science, which displaced and replaced God … created a vacancy: the office of the supreme legislator-cum-manager, of the designer and administrator of the world order, was now horrifyingly empty. It had to be filled or else… The emptiness of the throne was throughout the modern era a standing and tempting invitation… The dream of an all-embracing order and harmony remained as vivid as ever. It was now up to mortal earthlings to bring it about and to secure its ascendancy (Zygmunt Bauman, quoted in Scott, 1998, p. 87).

Perhaps in the end, we might not be able to do without such a belief system. Perhaps we need safety professionals to form a kind of priesthood, because we cannot handle a horrifyingly empty throne. Or could you?

References

Armstrong, K. (1993). A history of God: The 4,000-year quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. New York: Ballantine Books.

Berger, P. L. (1967). The social reality of religion. London: Faber.

Besnard, D., & Hollnagel, E. (2014). I want to believe: Some myths about the management of industrial safety. Cognition, Technology and Work, 16(1), 13-23.

Douglas, M. (1992). Risk and blame: Essays in cultural theory. London: Routledge.

Ehrman, B. (2008). God’s problem: How the Bible fails to answer our most important question: Why we suffer. New York: Harper Collins.

Gergen, K. J. (2013). A cycle of progressive infirmity. Paper presented at the Global Summit on Diagnostic Alternatives, Swarthmore, PA.

Kugel, J. L. (2007). How to read the Bible: A guide to scripture, then and now. New York: Free Press.

Marsh, T. (2013). Talking safety: A user’s guide to world class safety conversation. Farnham, UK: Gower Publishing.

Ogilvie, S. (2011). Institutions and European trade: Merchant guilds 1000-1800. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Stearns, P. N. (1990). “So Much Sin”: The Decline of Religious Discipline and the “Tidal Wave of Crime”. Journal of Social History, 23(3), 535-552.

Stoop, J., & Dekker, S. W. A. (2012). Are safety investigations proactive? Safety Science, 50, 1422-1430.

Taylor, C. (2007). A secular age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Witz, A. (1990). Patriarchy and professions: The gendered politics of occupational closure. Sociology, 24(4), 675-690.

Wood, M. (2015). Shadows in Caves? A Re-Assessment of Public Religion and Secularization in England Today. European Journal of Sociology, 56(2), 241-270.

Wright, R. (2009). The evolution of God. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

[1] This is a widely quoted statement by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, which first appeared in his 1882 collection Die frohliche Wissenschaft (The joyful science), Section 125, but is even more popularly associated with his classic Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus spoke Zarathrustra).

16 thoughts on “The Safety Profession can be like a Priesthood”

  1. Great paper that is long overdue. I have long considered safety to be “done” in a way similar to how religion is practised. I have often questioned why and how we do things only to be treated like some kind of heretic.

  2. Religion also has a self-professed role as the exclusive moral guardian for society, despite the fact that all progressive changes over time – religious tolerance, gender equality and so on – have been societally driven with religious institutions dragged along behind, kicking and screaming in protest. Safety differently mirrors this closely – it is a much more bottom-up, evolutionary, inclusive approach than that traditionally advocated by the profession. The parallel to the medieval guilds is very well made.
    The other thing of note is that it is not only science that fills the gap left by the decline of religion. In their desire to have something to hold on to, people will fill that gap with pseudo-science, quackery and downright nonsense (not that beliefs are free from those things, but at least they are somewhat limited by the dominant credo). If safety breaks free from its pseudo-religious constraints, we need to be even more wary of the snake oil sellers.

  3. Having been in the priesthood and in safety I certainly wouldn’t compare them as ‘professions’ however the religious nature of faith, belief, language and symbols (in fundamentalism) is now certainly very similar. The big separation for me is in the depth of education, thinking and critical thought in the priesthood which is light years ahead of the narrow simplistic training of safety.

    If we take Ricouer’s discourse on myths as symbols then certainly safety in its current focus (World Congress) is immersed in religious symbology and language. It is however only a fundamentalist binary version of religion and is separated significantly on the denial of fallibility. One of the critical beliefs in all religions is on human fallibility.

    In safety the omniscience of god is now ascribed to systems so evident in the Bradley Curve. Even the notion of commandments is understood as a breach of a system whereas in Christianity sin is understood as a breach in relationship. So again a dissimilar construct. In safety as in binary religious belief people construct a god to suit their own ends. The discourse of monotheism (as a systems of rules) certainly helps this but theologians I know in Judaism certainly don’t understand their faith like this. Anyway, perhaps commandment one could be more likely: ‘There is no other god before me but ‘safety’ or perhaps ‘zero’.

    There is little doubt that many people in safety understand their work as a ‘calling’ (vocation) because safety has its own soteriology infused now with language and iconography in absolutes. This enables the tyranny of behaviorist determinism because rules are for ‘saving lives’ and counting has now become the new sanctification. Interestingly, most modern theologies (for example – liberation and feminist theologies) share so little similarity to traditional binary fundamentalist theologies that once again it is difficult to make a comparison. On the fundamentalist scale (Weber) of things safety certainly has many similarities. As for a priesthood, I wonder what safety now holds as its ordination? Perhaps investigating its first injury (baptism)? I wonder what symbolises the new ‘church’? The quest for professionalization (without education) certainly bears many similarities.

  4. Good read Sidney.

    I’ll have a go at answering your concluding question:

    “Perhaps in the end, we might not be able to do without such a belief system. Perhaps we need safety professionals to form a kind of priesthood, because we cannot handle a horrifyingly empty throne. Or could you?”

    Could you?

    I think the answer is that we could but it would be inefficient. We generally speaking could all study, train, practice to develop any skill or knowledge that we sometimes need. I won’t call a plumber, I’ll do a plumbing trade and fix my tap. I won’t call an accountant, I’ll do a degree and then do my books. And so on. But society functions on people concentrating their work and being able to assist others with those aspects of life; not because they necessarily could not do them themselves with sufficient time and effort but because it is simpler.

  5. Neuroscientist would say we have the need to be part of a tribe. This comes from the days when being part of a tribe was fundamental for our safety – protection from other tribes. Each tribe has its behavioural norms, when we join an new tribe, team, we study the team norms as we want to be accepted. This has nothing to do with beliefs, all to do with acceptance.

    Many companies attempt to develop a set a behavioual norms like – the “golden rules”, the “life saving behaviours”, as part of the tool set. Why, people, fathers, brothers, etc have died when walking under suspended loads, when entering confined spaces. These are not the only tools. They attempt to normalise this behaviour so we look after each other – to intervene, to look after a mate, to engage in conversation around the specific situation and how best to manage the risk.

    The issue comes when punishment is applied, as the normative behaviour moves from mates looking after mates to fear and punishment. This latter behaviour is alive an well. Neuroscience also suggests a need to find status within the tribe. “I have the power to book you an exit window seat on the next plane out”. Some individuals seek this status through negative power.

    As with all tools – give them to a craftsman and something of beauty is created. Our challenge is to build more craftsmen.

  6. Final paragraph is very revealing. So if safety is religious, Dekker must be the pope, or at least be trying to become one. What would poor safety professionals do without the guidance of their supreme academicals leaders, I wonder
    Perhaps we should just demonise all safety professionals, deny existence of safety profession as a whole and replace all of them with psychologists and similar ‘real ‘professions. Maybe this is the point of the article, just more converted approach to an open attack on safety profession by all knowing Mr Long. And then we can build refineries, planes and nuclear plants without any leadership and supervision and purely by applying anarchy rules Dekker advocates in his ‘little town square’ example. Maybe he can take the first ride on the plane build under his own methodology?

    1. Precisely my thoughts. where is the evidence that supervisors and leadership influences on safety are a ‘safety myth’? How many years did Mr Dekker spent in organisations and on the shop floor to gain this all knowing insight and convert it into unilateral ‘truth’?

  7. I suppose it is not too much to ask for some evidence supporting the article, incurring some bold statements about safety myths?

      1. Rob , we see what we want to see, especially when we are affiliated with religion through upbringing and excursions to priesthood.

  8. Dekker seems to reveal many of the points that form the arguments of post modernism which seek to do away with church as false and irrelevant, seek to challenge science in many ways, decry anything that is proven and good with the post modernistic approach of challenge everything, “if it feels good it must be good therefore it is true” Safety still has a long, long way to go but can never become a true belief system given the disconnect on systems v relationships and knowing that you know that you know. Safety can have many faces and more often than not it is the basis of man’s ideas on how to change something to create an approach that fits their own need, not the needs of everyone. Oh it is so easy to explain things away so that our own little worlds and view are not threatened or challenged or that there might be a Higher Power.

  9. Dekker is right of course, and the piece is worthy of the academic recognition he appears to seek, but it pours too much scorn and pokes too much fun for my taste. Yes safety is a belief system but remember that belief systems are also the catalyst for much good and selfless acts.
    I was a priest and cardinal in the church of civil aviation safety for many years but it was only after taking the purple (becoming a manager of inspectors) that I realised how much safety had become sacred and that some of my my priests were behaving like pre-reformation abbots and in some cases the Borgias!
    However some others behaved like Evangelists and yet others missionaries. These latter people were humble and seemed to be able to guide their flock to safety solutions which were profound and lasting. They concentrated upon merits of doing the right thing rather than finding references to the rules or scared scripts that the others found so much comfort in.
    So yes, let’s acknowledge this religious analogy as a reality but get the best out of it as a new insight. Let us expose the self-serving behaviours and emphasise and praise the good practical outcomes which come from devotion to doing good. And safety is good isn’t it?

    1. Agree Howard. But basically Sidney’s article is a little walk through a proposition that is obvious, right, useful, completely uncontroversial and common to all professions, not just ministers of religion and those involved in the safety sciences. It’s just that those two areas were chosen. I’m not sure of the motivation but you can choose any two fields of study. All have their knowledge, their ‘bible’ so to speak, that the people who study that thing know more about than others.

  10. “Social cohesion carried by ritual, myth and professed values. You can see this in so-called ‘safety share’ moments before executive meetings which resemble a kind of religious reflection, a mini-sermon on moral teachings, or a communal prayer.”

    Recently I worked for a large organization and those in the safety department would have meetings, to discuss safety issues of course. But we HAD to start with a safety moment – something totally unrelated to the safety issues about to be discussed. Why would safety people having a meeting to solve safety issues have to begin the meeting with a safety moment? This was not a pre-job brief; there were no production employees, only safety people. It was so much like saying grace before eating, the religious tone of it was too much for me; I questioned the practice, and what surprised me was how everyone accepted the practice. To make it worse, the “best” safety moments were those most like what we learn in kindergarten – you know – the “always be careful” tips. I was the only resistor, which is never good. I actually became a scapegoat – maybe because I was different, because I resisted the communal prayer?

    For sure this large group of safety people were intelligent people but blind obedience to an organizational ritual like this tells me something was missing in their education. A framework for education of safety professionals was recently signed in Singapore (INSHPO), and that there is nothing in the recommended education framework that will teach safety people the foundations and history of safety…to be able to think critically about how we practice safety, question how we know what we know. I hope safety differently and the INSHPO people can get together.

    1. It is fascinating to observe and understand where those rituals actually come from, specifically how they were invented in the first place and what are key drivers for it. Most importantly, how a simple idea of sharing valuable information and making the safety important can easily become a meaningless and destructive practice. Many people still think about safety as an individual, moral issue, so it is not difficult to see how this happens and how ‘being seen to be doing’ safety overtakes actually doing it. I dare say that in many places, challenging this practice from the safety practitioners perspective (lower, operational ranks) has a real risk of being seen as ‘not belonging’ to the group, hence the education will only go so far. It is the culture which is the problem. Challenging those rituals needs to occur at the most senior leadership levels and for that to happen, there has to be a capable and educated safety executive at the table, creating this conversation. This, sadly is not as common as it needs to be as safety function in organisations is being increasingly handed over at executive levels to other mainstream functions, not always across the issues this site is trying to highlight and not always with ability to create those crucial conversations needed for a change

  11. Interesting and thought provoking article.
    I would somewhat question the statement which describes behaviours and practices of supervision as leaders and their impact on the culture of safety as simply – a ‘myth’.
    In addition to organisational experiences of many leaders, there is ample empirical evidence in contemporary management and leadership to prove that behaviours of leaders has critical influence on behaviours, practices and operational decision making on the sharp end. More often than not, a supervisor who routinely does not follow the rules will get actions and behaviours from his crew members which are more or less consistent with his practices. Whether this has positive or negative influence on the culture depends on the validity of the rule, a particular operational situation and circumstances and an overall culture of the organisation. In many cases a supervisor would be fully expected and justified to break the ‘bad’ rule as rules need to provide operational flexibility as this goes hand in hand with the key aspects of operational leadership and promotion of human variability and deference to local expertise. In this context, it could be argued that operational leadership breaking bad rules is actually constructive for the positive culture of safety, but on the overall, if the culture is good, a supervisor who does not follow organisational norms and demonstrates practices which are contrary to existing, positive culture, will indeed have a profound negative effects on the culture. The more senior position of a leader in this context, the bigger the damage.

    Although it happens at the sharp end, safety cannot be localised or separated from the obvious, complex and critical influences of leadership, organisational behaviour and existing culture. Safety is not only a sharp end issue, it is an organisational one and this is how we need to understand it in order to influence further improvements. Behaviours and practices of leaders are absolutely critical as key building blocks of the overall organisational culture of safety

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