Author Bio ▼

Dr Tim Marsh PhD, MSc, CFIOSH, CPsychol, SFIIRSM is MD of Anker and Marsh. Visiting Professor at Plymouth University he is considered a world authority on the subject of behavioural safety, safety leadership and organisational culture. As well as many of the world's most recognisable industrial names Tim has worked with diverse organisations such as the European Space Agency, the BBC, Sky TV, the RNLI and the National Theatre in his 25 year plus consultancy career. He has key noted and chaired dozens of conferences around the world including the closing key note at the Campbell Institutes inaugural International Thoughts Leaders event in 2014. He has written several best-selling books including Affective Safety Management, Talking Safety, Total Safety Culture, the Definitive Guide to Behavioural Safety and Organised Wellbeing. Previously he led Manchester Universities ground-breaking research team into behavioural safety methodologies in the 1990s.
March 31, 2021

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Health and safety… differently

Sex and the safety message…

In the first of a new blog series, Tim Marsh revisits an old article of his and asks, is it better to risk offending the few to get an important message over to the many? Or is there a bigger picture that renders such short-term concerns irrelevant?

Gails shoesThe article of mine that produced the most comment over the years was titled ‘sex and safety’ (who’d have thought!?). It concerned a colleague, Emma Currie, who’d presented at an IIRSM event that I’d organised, on her drama piece ‘Gail’s Shoes’. It’s a performance piece which is about a woman dealing with the psychological fallout of her husband being left paraplegic by an oil rig accident.

A female audience member had suggested it was inappropriate for Emma to perform draped in only a sheet as it could make women in the audience uncomfortable. Her reasoning was that men might initially wolf whistle or just be thinking ‘she’s a bit of all right’, even if they said nothing. Though the performance becomes serious very quickly, and is profoundly moving, the ‘damage is already done’ as it were. (I was once dragged to a comedy play, ‘Girls Night Out’ at Stockport Theatre, and found myself one of only four men in the audience. Even that was a little unnerving — so I do understand the psychological mechanism this woman referred to, even though in my case it wasn’t preceded by centuries of discrimination and physical intimidation).

The counter argument was that Emma couldn’t have performed another of her scripts, ‘Dead Jed’ for example, as that requires an overweight, 6’2” middle aged bloke. More than that, she probably wouldn’t have been invited to attend the event at all and wouldn’t be the renowned head of the drama outfit Acting Up without the runaway success Gail’s Shoes spearheaded. Indeed, what makes the piece so powerful is that juxtaposition of surprise titillation at a naked back and red high heels (most safety audiences are still ageing blokes of course), and the impact of the intense emotion that quickly develops over the next 12 minutes. It was initially written for rig workers and proved hugely successful and seven years ago every one of around 50 comments (an almost unprecedented amount for an article) were highly supportive of Emma. Looking back, however, I suspect they were nearly all from men.

Indeed, I often use adult themes to wake up an audience after lunch myself: asking for example “who wants to confess to visiting a sex club for the first time?” (It’s a jolting way of introducing the power of behavioural norms in unfamiliar situations. It gets laughs and interaction and delegates are far more likely to remember the learning point). As you can imagine, this was something the uncomfortable delegate thought I shouldn’t do either.

Since then, ‘Me Too’ and ‘Reclaim the Streets’ suggest a revisiting the original article makes sense.

The original dilemma was phrased as: “do we use what works for the majority of the audience even if it renders the workplace a little uncomfortable for some for a short while?” On re-reading, was using the words ‘a little’ a sub-conscious attempt to finesse the argument and me ignoring the symbolism re a massive social problem? And is that a variation on the self-serving tabloid argument of “you have to give them what they want” which simply reinforces the status quo and hinders important progress?

That said, we have to adapt. I no longer swear at all at open events to avoid the possibility of a conference organiser having to field “not appropriate” complaints even though the vast majority laugh and if it were a film it would have a 12 rating. (The sound “uck” being the funniest in the English language as – also – in “I can’t have mad cow disease … I’m not a cow at all – I’m a duck”).

Reader Challenge: What do YOU think? Is it better to risk offending the few to get an important message over to the many? Or is there a bigger picture that renders such short-term concerns irrelevant? Place your thoughts in the comment box below…

Click here for more from Tim’s blog series…

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Paul Mahoney
Paul Mahoney
5 months ago

It is a question faced by many trainer/facilitator/speaker (or just an employee) in today’s society will my content/opinion offend someone in the audience. This could be that they (the offended) are not interested in the subject anyway and will ‘play up’ just to stop the message being delivered or heard . Unfortunately, people will find anything (however innocent) to be offended today because they want their opinion noted in the group and we do live in a culture of victimhood. The more social media is driven by emotion over fact, then this will leak more into real life. My personal… Read more »

Reader
Reader
5 months ago
Reply to  Paul Mahoney

RIght.

Ian Mansfield
Ian Mansfield
5 months ago

Wow! I’ve seen a lot of safety videos over the years but this one is really hard hitting. Yes, I think it does get the message across. I don’t think it is offending due to the way the lady is dressed, after all, she is an actress and is most likely wearing shorts and top or similar beneath the bed sheet. The scene provides a powerful message. The part about the Lost Time Incident stood out for me. A man’s life has been irrevocably altered and all the HSE/company care about is the lost time and the financial cost it… Read more »

Tim Marsh
Tim Marsh
5 months ago
Reply to  Ian Mansfield

Hi Ian – you may be interested (!) to know that Emma is something of a ‘method’ actress and feels it important re a vulnerable mind set to do does no such thing!

An Ageing Safety Male
An Ageing Safety Male
5 months ago

As with all things in life it surely this more about the subject matter, than how this is delivered?

Does it aid to telling the story, how naked or at least partly naked in this case, the wife now feels without her husband to protect her?

Nigel Dale
Nigel Dale
5 months ago

I think the choice of stage attire set the scene well. I don’t think she was illustrating a lack of ‘protection’ by her husband. The play is largely about the change and decline of a loving relationship because of a workplace accident, the scene being the morning after her sleeping with another man, and her subsequent reflection and emonions.

Terry C
Terry C
5 months ago

To me it’s a great way of getting the message of the impact of “LTI’s” or other incidents across. Great video for a toolbox talk or safety meeting. It’s not just the person that is injured, but how the effects, of the injury or fatality, ripple out to effect not just the individual, but their family, friends, fellow workers and society. As for wearing red shoes and a sheet to get peoples initial attention, I think it works . When watching do you listen to the story or watch the person? I listened to the story, after the initial introduction.

Tim Marsh
Tim Marsh
5 months ago
Reply to  Terry C

Hi Terry. The late great Ian Whittingham used to talk really well about the ‘ripples’.

Bob Hartley
Bob Hartley
5 months ago

This lines up neatly alongside the question “do we show a picture of an injury to help prevent another similar injury, or do we not dare, and thus risk the potential for another one occurring”? Is the probability of the picture preventing the injury greater than the probability of the picture causing offence ? And also – am I bothered if I cause offence, if it is in a good cause ? I appear to have asked more questions, and given no answer – so for clarity. I’m squeamish, so I don’t like looking at gory pictures, however there is… Read more »

Richard Neave
Richard Neave
5 months ago
Reply to  Bob Hartley

Indeed sex does sell however, I did not see a performance that was sexualised in any way. Yes, in part it was the subject of her monologue, but the performance was not in any way a sexual or provocative one. There was no sexual suggestion to the audience, only conversation about her own experience, which is designed only to draw the audience in to the main subject that massively overshadows the opening few sentences of her performance.

Tim Marsh
Tim Marsh
5 months ago
Reply to  Bob Hartley

Hi Bob – this very much my mindset too. Or it certainly was unashamedly so when i first wrote it. Now I have two highly political daughters of 21 … and as i work more and more in the world of holistic wellbeing and mental health … i get more and more aware of bigger pictures. (Aware this an answer from a fence!)

Simon Cassin
Simon Cassin
5 months ago

Very interesting article. It brings into question the ethical concepts of rights and obligations. Does a person have a right not to be subjected to possible offensive material? and if they do have that right then it is reasonable to state that we are obligated to respect that rights? This is a perfect example of the type of right v right dilemmas which we face everyday at work. Only with a mutually created and agreed ethical framework can we navigate these type of dilemmas in a consistent way. Understanding how to utilise utilitarian, deontological and care based approaches to ethical… Read more »

Tim Marsh
Tim Marsh
5 months ago
Reply to  Simon Cassin

Thank you Simon. I agree – dialogue is key.

Richard Neave
Richard Neave
5 months ago

The lady may only have been wearing a bedsheet, (young women often wear less on a night out!) but everything was covered and it was performed in a very decent and respectful way. The subject was something that we all, as human beings, can relate to. We can all understand the emotion of the situation and why she is feeling the way she is. What an amazing way of communicating to people, the emotional stress that can be caused by a partner suffering a serious accident, whilst at the same time reinforcing the human factors that can and often are… Read more »

Tim Marsh
Tim Marsh
5 months ago
Reply to  Richard Neave

You may well provoke some replies with this one Richard!

Clare Williams
Clare Williams
5 months ago

I appreciate that using a dramatic narrative brings home the extraordinarily important message and Gail’s Shoes is dramatic and beautifully acted. However I can’t understand why the fall out of a serious and life changing injury is being conveyed via the medium of a woman’s self blame over her ‘failure’ to avoid a random shag. I think the underlying point about her sadness over what’s been lost is subtle and nuanced, but I find the vehicle jarring rather than helpful in that it directs thinking too much towards human frailty, allowing the corporate behaviour issues to feature too little and,… Read more »

Tim Marsh
Tim Marsh
5 months ago
Reply to  Clare Williams

Thank you Clare – that’s exactly the sort of thoughtful analysis Ian and I were after.

Rebecca Walpole
Rebecca Walpole
5 months ago
Reply to  Clare Williams

Couldn’t have put it better myself, Clare. I do think it is a well-acted piece with an important message and often people are less likely to take a risk if they’re thinking of how it could affect their family, rather than just themselves. I just think this could be portrayed differently – rather than a woman absolutely kicking herself for a mistake. Focusing more on the accident, the company and the emotions and physical demands of dealing with the aftermath and a different husband would have made it less of a debate about something that shouldn’t be the focus of… Read more »

Paul Vermiglio
Paul Vermiglio
5 months ago

It will be up to the listener to decide how they are going to react and this is fine. The art of expression is an individuals choice and it will not always please everyone, as long as there is no intent to cause any further unnecessary suffering. I related to the subject matter openly and with sadness for the accident and all involved, the full message was clear to me and my friends.

Last edited 5 months ago by Paul_Vermiglio
Lisa Hayes
Lisa Hayes
5 months ago

For me its all about knowing your audience . You always run the risk of offending someone, and its getting worse. Safety has a reputation for being boring and we all find our own way of trying to get the message heard. Historically I’ve been vetoed for using “risqué” phrases in safety posters . not quite sure how ” you can leave your hat on” on a poster encouraging people to wear a bump cap is offensive or unprofessional but it takes all sorts. Personally it didn’t hit the mark with me, nothing to do with how she was dressed.… Read more »

Tim Marsh
Tim Marsh
5 months ago
Reply to  Lisa Hayes

Hi Lisa – so many responses to this great contribution come to mind. But I’ll self edit!

Maria Vize
Maria Vize
5 months ago

The content moved me to tears, the acting very well done, the provoking of thought very well done, but, and I do risk sounding like a female who is complaining, (indeed I am not and found the whole thing a breath of fresh air) but I think we need to consider the audience, especially following the recent situation a teacher found himself in just because he showed a picture to children to aid learning, because some parents found it offensive. It could get onto very difficult ground just as easily! I think she discussed domino effect and LTI and allowing… Read more »

Tim Marsh
Tim Marsh
5 months ago
Reply to  Maria Vize

Thank you Maria. It’s women in safety Ian and I especially keen to hear from on this one.

Claire C
Claire C
5 months ago

I found this really moving. I like the idea to deliver the message in this way. New styles make people sit up and listen. It reminds me of the first time I heard Jason Anker speak. The issues faced after the event are much more than losing the use of your legs. Over the years many inspirational speakers have emerged, some of them brilliant but we have heard it all before now. Anything that makes us hear an old message in a new way is a positive thing.

Tim Marsh
Tim Marsh
5 months ago
Reply to  Claire C

Again, thank you Claire. 7 years ago nearly everyone wh0 commented was male. We’re getting far more input from women this time which is great.

Laura Davies
Laura Davies
5 months ago

Why do we have to shock to be remembered or gain interest from our audience? Once sex no longer shocks, what next? I think Gail is a very good actress but her message would have been equally powerful dressed and I don’t understand what the one night stand adds to the message? Whilst heterosexual I have no interest in watching a naked man give a talk on safety, not even you Tim! I have heard your talks and the reference to sex (David Bowie/Tina Turner) only made me cringe, I thought they were a little beneath you. Your humour and… Read more »

Tim Marsh
Tim Marsh
5 months ago
Reply to  Laura Davies

Hi Laura. Thanks for the post. Whislt your taste is unimpeachable …(If nothing else I have a “best before 1989” label) i have to disagree about Bowie/ Turner Memphis story and the session guitarist in the background (bizarrely the UK leadership guru Nigel Girling). I still think it’s really amusing! Whilst i am adopting a neutral position here (indeed am genuinely on the fence on this one) since this the first critical post i think it’s worth pointing out that progress is best achieved through Socratic dialogue – and this is quite possibly the largest number of posts achieved by… Read more »

Laura Davies
Laura Davies
5 months ago
Reply to  Tim Marsh

Perhaps I was going for my own shock value? Yes, shock value has its place but it needs to be proportionate and relevant. You could easily create a talk on this and the majority of the audience would participate as it is an interesting and topical subject. It’s close cousin is freedom of speech…another minefield.

Tim Marsh
Tim Marsh
5 months ago
Reply to  Laura Davies

Hi Laura… all fair comment but please don’t forget that a) ive been doing this for almost 30 years and need content that I enjoy delivering to keep me lively … and b) if i can communicate the safety message well to a typical audience it’s because I spent a lot of time bantering in rugby club changing rooms!

Brian Holmes
Brian Holmes
5 months ago

An amazing performance by a highly skilled actress, absolutely nailed the delivery and right on topic. I’d imagine nearly all the audience were thinking the same as me – how would I feel if that was my or my mate’s wife or girlfriend standing up there exposed and vulnerable, saying that stuff, adding insult to injury? I have to confess I’m completely out of my depth about the issue of offence being taken, but I suppose if it was all or most of the women in the audience, and none of the men, then we really should question whether the… Read more »

Tim Marsh
Tim Marsh
5 months ago
Reply to  Brian Holmes

Hi Brian. Long time no speak. How are you? Tim

Philip Douglas
Philip Douglas
5 months ago

Having been a trainer for over 30 years, I’ve found it necessary to change style and material to avoid offending anyone. I recall 15 years ago showing a safety poster as an example of safety propaganda it depicted a silhouette of a female. As tame as you might get. However I person in a group of firefighters complained. My Fire Authority Client investigated and accepted my use of the image and it came to nothing. In Saudi Arabia I accidentally showed a Simpsons clip that depicted god, not good! However my Saudi Aramco audience were very nice about it. As… Read more »

Tim Marsh
Tim Marsh
5 months ago
Reply to  Philip Douglas

Thank you for that thoughtful comment Phillip.

Stephanie Howells
Stephanie Howells
5 months ago

This is the first time I have seen this piece, and at first I honestly felt uncomfortable, and a bit shocked, and if I was there I would have probably thought – ‘why is this necessary’ (and I must add I am NOT easily offended at all) However that is soon forgotten when the message comes across and it’s coming from the wife’s point of view, not only how her husband has been affected but how she and her life have been affected. Just like Jason Anker it’s the impact on the family. All the necessary points are covered –… Read more »

Tim Marsh
Tim Marsh
5 months ago

Thank you Stephanie. That’s the whole conundrum articualted right there! Enjoy your coffee.

Dan Rowlson
Dan Rowlson
5 months ago

Being offended is a result of a deviation or conflict with expectations. Gail’s shoes in my experience having employed Emma to present to a crowd of non-safety professionals, is clear when it is introduced, will makes some people feel uncomfortable in a work setting. If you take the content out of a work setting its similar to a 12A rating from the British Board of Film Classification. The language, the dress and presentation is there for context and is a jarring use of art that cuts through hours of presentations and talkers at safety events. If we could get this… Read more »

Tim Marsh
Tim Marsh
5 months ago
Reply to  Dan Rowlson

Thank you Dan. I always like to refer to that 12a rating as it actually gives us quite a lot of leeway.

Nigel Dale
Nigel Dale
5 months ago

We see a lot of evidence as safety practitioners that many people do not consider the consequences of their risk taking. I thought Emma’s performance was very powerful and perfectly illustrated the impact that a life changing injury (at work) can have on the families and friends of the injured person. I didn’t think Emma’s performance was sexual or sexualised, it referenced the lasting impact of Fraser’s accident on their relationship and it hit home. However, perhaps it is the context that some people have a problem with, that it was not a choice to see this performance as if… Read more »

Tim Marsh
Tim Marsh
5 months ago
Reply to  Nigel Dale

Thank you Nigel. It’s worth pointing out that Emma tailors the content to her audience. Just re-watching the clip that Ian has put up reminds me of that. (It’s a version, that, for example, refers to her shoes RE a sea bird rather than rhyming with a lake bird).

Lynn Jones
Lynn Jones
5 months ago

I thought the message was powerful and well acted, but there was absolutely no need at all for the actress to be unclothed. There seems to be a lot of comments (from men) saying it is ok to make ‘some people’ uncomfortable to get the message across but can you all hand on heart say it would have been less powerful if she had been wearing clothes and made it clear what the setting was? I don’t see how the shock of a naked back at a safety conference does anything other that grab attention momentarily. The truth is that… Read more »

Tim Marsh
Tim Marsh
5 months ago
Reply to  Lynn Jones

Thank you for this clear and well articualted position Lynn. Tim

Sean Black
Sean Black
4 months ago

Emma delivered this training at an event I organised some years ago for my then employer, members of their supply chain and their clients – a predominantly male group. There was indeed push back from the HR team, who were all female and felt it degraded women; so we changed the dress code from a sheet to something less revealing. There remained uncertainty, and a nervous un-comfortability before the presentation began about political correctness. The performance was still as powerful , the message as thought provoking and the audience reaction strong. As long as we avoid being overtly racist, sexist… Read more »

Tim Marsh
Tim Marsh
4 months ago
Reply to  Sean Black

Thank you Sean. Just the sort of considered response about nuanced adjustments to best suit we were after here.