Anker & Marsh

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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