The Zeitgeist of Safety
Following up on my article about fashions in safety management, in this piece I describe the Zeitgeist of Safety. The Zeitgeist, the spirit of an era, has a relationship with these fashions, as it manifests itself, in individualism, collectivism and materialism in the broader culture, or things like empiricism and quantification/financialization in science and organization, and partly determines how money is used and which trends catch on. And these trends, in turn, partly determine cultural values.
The Zeitgeist of Safety
An influential yet often unspoken force shaping our thoughts, actions, and even our professional identities, that’s Zeitgeist, and its historical roots trace back to the French Revolution.
Zeitgeist is the spirit of an era, an invisible hand if you will, that guides our decisions and behaviors. Zeitgeist wasn't coined by Johann Gottfried Herder, but he certainly made it famous. He saw Zeitgeist as a tool for understanding and critiquing the world around us. Culture and politics interact, and Zeitgeist helps us understand the roles of elites and the public in shaping our world.
In the safety domain, Zeitgeist shapes our approach to creating safer workplaces. In Safety Science, until roughly ten years ago there was a dominant focus on safety culture and safety leadership. Current trends in Safety Science are:
- Using virtual reality for safety training or machine learning for safety assessments;
- Studying the impact of cognitive technology and fatigue on decision-making processes;
- Studying issues related to aging, both physical and socio-psychological hazards;
- Safety practices are integrated with broader concepts such as:
o corporate social responsibility, and
o business continuity management.
The credibility of researchers and their affiliations can significantly influence how ideas are received. Renowned authors and institutions often garner more attention and resources. For instance, Amy Edmondson’s research around psychological safety has recently had a huge influence on safety discourse. Popular theories like these are sometimes uncritically applied to the field of safety, while rigorous observations of safety practice could lead to novel ideas about managing safety risks.
Striking a balance between embracing innovative ideas and building upon the foundation of existing knowledge is important. This helps research to be both groundbreaking and credible.
Oergel, M. (2019), Zeitgeist – How Ideas Travel - Politics, Culture, and the Public in the Age
of Revolution, Berlin/Boston: Walter de Gruyter.