I recently spent a couple of days in the Greek city of Athens and was, as always, awed by the cultural heritage of Ancient Greece. Similar to my time in Crete, some months ago, I received a deadline reminder for my next article. This time the subject matter was an easy choice, as I was truly inspired by the mythology, signs, and symbols observed during my semiotic-filled walks through the ancient city of Athens.

Standing below and then climbing up towards the Acropolis of Athens, situated on a rocky hill overlooking the city, takes one back in time to around the fifth century BC. Buildings include the Parthenon and Temple of Athena Nike, although most of it was destroyed in 1687 during the siege by the Venetians in the Morean War. These surroundings, as well as the museums and many of the other ancient sites, remind us of the significance of mythology.

Greek mythology is filled with gods, goddesses, and larger-than-life heroes. While they might seem like simple stories, it must be remembered that many were written by icons like the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Socrates.

Without doubt, the ancient Greek myths have been handed down from generation to generation, over centuries. They are still shaping life today and retain much of the relevance they had at their inception.

It is key that we understand the significance of myths and symbols in our drive to understand culture. This is true for the culture of Ancient Greece, different countries, ethnic groups, the companies in which we work, or the associations that we belong to, whether in our private or professional lives.

You might be wondering why I’m focusing on myths, signs, and symbols in an article related to risk and safety. Well, we are surrounded in our everyday lives by signs and symbols that relate to us, as well as myths that are interwoven in certain thoughts and processes that we follow. These all communicate with our subconscious and mould the way we act and behave.

I will focus on a few of these, including the mantras “Zero Harm” and “Safety is a choice we make”, as well as a linear model used by the risk and safety industry. These are all myths in their own right.


I have previously spoken out against the mantra “Zero Harm” and have written about it in both my books, It Works and Humanising Leadership in Risk. There is, however, a need to reiterate that this myth needs to be eliminated from future risk and safety language.

Since I became convinced about the absurdity of these words and associated mantras, I have had many discussions about the topic with leaders at different levels and people working within risk and safety. This has included colleagues within our own organisation, consultants, acquaintances, and friends, as well as others within and outside the risk and safety industry.

Many eventually understand the logic behind eliminating the mantra (some quicker than others). However, a common response is: “I understand that it is not possible to achieve ‘Zero Harm’, but it should be our ultimate objective or aspiration.” My question is, “Why set an ultimate objective or aspiration if, in reality, it can never be achieved?”

At the airport in Vienna, on the bus taking passengers to my plane headed for Athens, I bumped into an old acquaintance of mine – the owner of a medium-sized consulting company with whom we used to do business. He mentioned he felt the direction we are going in is incorrect, implying (I guess) that “Zero Harm” and the mantra “Safety is a choice you make” still make sense. I have no doubt that he – along with other consulting companies – will change his point of view in years to come.

The discourse of mantras used and their meanings, as well as trade-offs, should be considered. Discourse is the power hidden in language. It is naïve, in the extreme, not to consider the politics of language in the way it is used. Discourse is not only linked to spoken or written communication. It includes myths, signs, symbols, metaphors, systems, and unspoken language entrenched in companies, as well as cultures and subcultures thereof.

Discourse of the language used should be understood, considering who has the power, who is affected, who is favoured, who is discouraged, and who is constrained by the discourse. Consideration should also be given to the trade-offs of the language associated with “Zero Harm”, and the mantras such as “Safety is a choice you make”, in order to understand the extent of blame, bullying, intimidation, torment, and embarrassment.

As a fictitious example, let us consider an employee who unconsciously made a mistake that resulted in a workplace incident, causing injury to themself, resulting in the loss of a record injury-free period. A “Zero Harm” mantra embedded in the language of the company would immediately result in the injured person feeling that they had failed their team, department, and company. The discourse of “Zero Harm” in this case would lead to a sense of failure, embarrassment and, quite possibly, some bullying if the company or department that they worked in lost its record of zero injuries, for example.

These types of mantras create distrust and promote the discourse that there is no understanding that people are fallible and make mistakes. The discourses of “Zero Harm” and “Safety is a choice you make”, for example, are of a binary nature and have no regard for things like flexibility, uncertainty, misunderstanding, human judgement, or the power of the subconscious.

I look forward to the day when we see the majority of those employed in the risk and safety field standing up against the myth that “Zero Harm” is possible, thereby defying it as the global mantra for risk and safety.


As one understands the importance of social psychology in the industry of risk and safety, one understands that many of the models developed over time have no regard or consideration for people, with many focused predominantly on objects and hazards.

Many of the models also take a linear approach, providing little or no regard for variables and issues like the embodied mind, or the significance of the subconscious mind in human behaviours and actions. Some of these include the traditional Hierarchy of Controls and Heinrich’s Triangle (also known as Bird’s Triangle). Another prevalent myth is that these models will prevent serious injuries or injuries as a whole.

Another such model is the traditional Swiss Cheese Model (from James Reason). This espouses the theory that accidents occur due to several interconnected factors. I have chosen to focus mainly on this model in this issue.

In the Swiss Cheese Model, in simple terms, the slices of cheese represent different controls in minimising risk. Should the holes in the cheese line up when controls fail (or are removed), then the incident will occur. The concern we have is that a linear school of thought does not consider the subconscious or embodied mind (to name but two of many variables). After all, little in life is a linear approach; no matter what we do, we are faced with unknowns and an abundance of variables.

Even with all workplace controls in place – including procedures, risk assessments, training, and systems – psychological and cultural elements also play a role. As a result, an incident could still take place.

It is neither fair nor sufficient to criticise certain models without providing an opposing argument. With this in mind, Dr Robert Long and I developed “ICue Causation”. The diagram on the previous page shows the arrows no longer in a linear formation, but instead travelling through different paths and exiting at different positions and angles. The idea of the three icons is to show consideration for workspace controls (red), psychological elements (yellow), and cultural or group dynamics (green). The other arrows with no icons represent potential combinations of the three aspects.


We all live by myths and rituals and are impacted by signs and symbols (including various models used) throughout our daily lives. I am by no means saying that myths are bad (it all depends on the purpose and ethic). However, we should consider what myths and rituals we have embedded in our risk and safety initiatives, systems, procedures, and practices – and how these communicate with the conscious as well as the subconscious (individually and collectively) of our employees and contractors.

All myths (including mantras) create their own reality framed by the symbols to which they are attached. Many in the risk and safety industry swear by the myths and models we have discussed, which are unintentionally counterproductive, with no regard for the individual.

A myth or mantra can be positive and add value to the development of the desired culture when its outcomes contribute to shifting the focus from objects to persons, helping to humanise the approach.

As leaders in the risk and safety field, we should challenge our organisations and ourselves about whether the myths, mantras, signs, symbols, and models we have adopted dehumanise people by prioritising objects. We need to question whether they develop mistrust and a blaming culture, thereby brutalising people. If the answer is yes, then the myth or mantra is counterproductive to developing the desired culture of any organisation.

The legacies of Greek mythology – including their lessons, characters, signs and symbols, stories, and themes – have shaped our world for centuries. So too do those used in risk and safety – so let’s get it right. As leaders, we need to remove the language and myths that are having a negative impact and replace them with those that resonate positively with people and communicate with the subconscious, both individually and collectively.

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