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