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April 2014

Vantage Point

The Theater of Safety

By Terry Thedell

Armed National Guardsmen greeting airline passengers in airport terminals in the days following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks is a scene that Bruce Schneier describes in his book, Beyond Fear, as an example of what he calls security theater. The concept of security theater describes security countermeasures intended to provide feelings of improved security while doing little or nothing to actually improve the reality of security. In this example, the presence of armed troops at the airports did little to reduce the actual risk of terrorism, but it provided visible reassurance to the traveling public regarding their safety.

A corollary to security theater could be the concept of safety theater in which safety-related activities are intended to provide feelings of improved safety but do little or nothing to actually make conditions safer or reduce the risk of injuries or illnesses.

Prime examples of safety theater are safety poster or slogan campaigns that try to improve the feelings of safety but actually do little to reduce risk and may simply alienate a skeptical workforce. Dave Johnson (2011) observed that safety mottos do not always motivate employees and may be “only Band-Aids patched over a cracked culture.”
Another example of safety theater occurred during the uproar over a potential bird flu epidemic and the resulting urgency to deploy containers of hand sanitizers in just about every conceivable work location. No one can question the value of clean hands in preventing transmissible diseases, but you can question the overnight installation of sanitizer dispensers alongside fully functioning restroom sinks. Somehow hand-sanitizer dispensers were seen as the theatric magic bullet to ward off a flu epidemic.

The problems with safety theater are similar to those of Schneier's security theater, as they both can divert limited resources, have real monetary costs and do not necessarily provide tangible safety or security benefits. Furthermore, the benefits that may result from these activities are generally temporary and often illusory.

However, the use of safety theater is not always bad, as we recognize that safety is a balance between people's subjective feelings of safety and the objective reality of being safe. Under some circumstances, the perception of safety may be more important to workers than the actual level of safety. A good example could be a well-written safety bulletin or message meant to inform employees about controlling a low-level risk such as potential hantavirus infections among outdoor workers. Often, action must be taken in response to an unusual incident, whether it is right or wrong. Employees and the public often feel comforted by any well-meaning action that is taken in a crisis.

According to Schneier, we must understand security theater for what it is and not minimize its value. Designers of safety policies and practices must also strive to reconcile the feelings of safety with the reality of safety to make better resource decisions once they recognize and understand the relationship between perception and real risk.

Based on Schneier's security theater framework, the following points would be helpful in understanding the use of safety theater:

  • Is there a firm understanding of what or who you are trying to protect from a clearly defined risk or problem?
  • What are the real safety risks? How severe are the consequences of the problem? How often will the problem occur and to whom?
  • How well does the proposed safety solution really reduce those risks? Is the solution actionable? Can the solution be enforced? Can effects of the solution be measured?
  • What problems does the proposed safety solution cause? Have unintended consequences been considered when reviewing the proposed solution?
  • Finally, what costs and trade-offs does the solution create? Are these costs acceptable?

Consider this mental exercise: Would you publish a safety bulletin to your client groups regarding the topic of cell phones and brain cancer? Would your actions be an example of safety theater or would they demonstrate real safety intervention?

We find ourselves in many theaters in our lives, but the final question is, are we the effective players in those theaters or are we the ones being played?

References

Schneier, B. (2003). Beyond fear: Thinking sensibly about security in an uncertain world. New York, NY: Copernicus Books.
Johnson, D. (2011, Feb. 14). Mottos don't motivate. Industrial Safety and Hygiene News. Retrieved from www.ishn.com/articles/89385-mottos-dont-motivate

Terry Thedell, Ph.D., CSP, CIH, is a senior industrial hygienist with San Diego Gas & Electric. He has 37 years' comprehensive safety and health practice in various academic positions, governmental agencies and industries, including steel, shipbuilding, aerospace and utilities. Thedell holds a B.S. in Occupational Safety and Health from Utah State University; and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Preventive Medicine and Environmental Health from University of Iowa. He is a professional member of ASSE's San Diego Chapter.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this article are strictly the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of his employer, nor its parent company or subsidiaries.

Vantage Point articles in Professional Safety provide a forum for authors with distinct viewpoints to share their ideas and opinions with ASSE members and the SH&E community. The goal is to encourage and stimulate critical thinking, discussion and debate on matters of concern to the SH&E profession. The views and opinions expressed are strictly those of the author(s) and are not necessarily endorsed by Professional Safety, nor should they be considered an expression of official policy by ASSE.

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