Dead Men Tell No Tales – Safety Storytelling

A common theme throughout presentations at the Safety Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur was the need to communicate safety and health clearly and concisely to variety of nationalities with a variety of literacy levels. My presentation aimed at reminding the OHS professional delegates that they may already have skills that they could use in communicating safety issues to their audience or workers and contractors.

Every culture has stories. Stories have been the dominant way of teaching for centuries but we are gradually losing some of our innate storytelling skills or we do not see how they may be relevant to the workplace. OHS professionals could benefit from redeveloping those skills and also encouraging those skills in others. Stories can be a base for teaching,listening and, in OHS parlance, consultation.

The story

Quite often people in business talk about “the story” without really appreciating the complexity of storytelling, or the power of storytelling. Here are two quotes about stories that I plucked from a marketing brochure:

“The story is what drives the bond between the company and the consumer.”

“Stories can be used to communicate visions and values, to strengthen company culture, to manage the company through change and to share knowledge across the organisation.”*

There is some truth in these quotes but the purpose of the quotes undermine their value. The book these are from discusses storytelling in terms of branding and advertising, in other words the purposeful manipulation of people’s desires. For marketing and advertising is the sector where storytelling has been most effective in supporting the selling of products and the selling of ideas.

But the occupational health and safety profession and workers have their own stories to tell and often these stories are more powerful than others because they are personal and genuine, and they are painful. But first I think it is important to remind ourselves of both the simplicity and the complexity of stories.


Here is a well-known fable from the West.

“A hare one day ridiculed the short feet and slow pace of the Tortoise, who replied, laughing: “Even if you were as swift as the wind, I will beat you in a race.”

The Hare, believing the Tortoise to be an easy match, agreed to the race. They agreed that a Fox should choose the course and fix the goal.
On the day of the race the two started together. The Hare raced off, leaving the Tortoise to choke on the dust left behind. The Tortoise never stopped for a moment, but went on with a slow but steady pace straight to the end of the course.

When the Hare was out of sight of the Tortoise, he lay down by the wayside and fell fast asleep. At last he woke up, and hopped as fast as he could to the finishing line. When he got there, he saw the Tortoise had reached the goal, and was comfortably asleep.”

The most common moral for this story is that those who are slow but steady win the race.


A parable is a story that also illustrates a moral point but uses humans. The parable of the Good Samaritan is probably the easiest and most popular example. Here is one version:

A man was walking down a country road, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. One man happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, another person, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.

How can these stories relate to workplace safety and safety management?

Speed over value

In this modern world there are many circumstances where rushing is rewarded. This is the basis of the debate of Production over Safety. It seems that modern production criteria often seems to sacrifice the safety of the workers for the sake of continued or faster production. Often this is not imposed on the workers but social pressures encourage the workers, the units of labour some would describe them, as to value money over their own safety and health, and rewards over quality of life.

Short-term over sustainable

The speed of the Hare is more admired before the race over the slow reputation of the tortoise. OHS professionals often advocate Take 5 or Step Back before undertaking a task. This fable is saying not to rush and to be diligent and mindful in what one does.
Similarly, OHS management needs careful consideration for sustainable outcomes rather than a short-term fix, which might fix nothing in the long-term and could even increase risk in the short-term.

Immediate planning over strategy

The Hare was physically quick but the Tortoise was more cunning. It could be an illustration of brain over brawn which is a concept OHS professionals use in manual handling, in particular.

Every profession, including the safety profession, operates on a state of knowledge. Australian OHS laws consider the state of knowledge about a hazard as an important criteria for working out how to control a hazard. The tortoise seems to have had a better state of knowledge than the hare.

Duty of Care

In many ways the Good Samaritan parable is a simpler tale as it reflects a core element of much of the OHS law, the duty of care. The duty of care is a legal concept but one that reflects the morality of mercy. My OHS regulator in Victoria states that workers have a duty of care:

“… to ensure that they work in a manner that is not harmful to their own health and safety and the health and safety of others,”

A similar duty of care is required of employers. In fact this is a greater duty of care as the employer has more control over business operations than does the worker.
In the parable, the Samaritan feels that he owes a duty of care to his fellow man and applies mercy to the robbed and injured man. This reflects a core moral element of the OHS professional.

But what about those who passed? This story was intended to illustrate one particular lesson but we can build on the parable and ask additional questions. What if, after arriving at the inn, the Samaritan had met one of the two men who had ignored the injured man? Should the Samaritan have said something? It is expected that the OHS professional would speak up if they see a breach of OHS laws, or report a non-compliance to the employer and perhaps even the OHS regulator.

A simplification of the parable is to “never walk past a hazard”. I have seen this in practice on many construction sites in Australia. The importance of this simple phrase is that if you walk past a hazard, it is showing to everyone else that the hazard is an acceptable part of the work process. It is creating a culture of a tolerance of risk which is, I would argue, the opposite of the duty of care.

An even simpler interpretation of the Samaritan story could be to “speak up” or “do something”. In many workplaces this may be difficult to do but it is a core element of OHS that hazards are addressed or fixed and that may involve bringing it to the attention of your supervisor or boss, as you may need their assistance in fixing the hazard.

These stories have existed for centuries but maintain relevance because they deal with basic human values. But what about new stories? Not everyone will relate to a fluffy bunny or a man walking a country road.

All stories teach.

We need to find stories that teach our own people, our workers and our managers, that hazards exist and can be fixed.

A 2011 study by researchers at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University into story telling in the construction industry stated that

“… studying stories and storytelling is a cross-disciplinary endeavour which encompasses individual cognition, narrative theory, leadership, organisational change, organisational learning, human communication in general, organisations and management. “

I would also add culture to this list.

The researchers found that stories

  • “help people to remember significant facts…”
  • “that influence an organisation may extend this influence to society…” and
  • are in a format that encourage people to pass the stories on.

Here is a communication method that all people grow up with, are comfortable with and to which they are “naturally” receptive.

Near Misses/Close Calls

One of the most common measures of OHS performance is the number of deaths that happen at a workplace but much less can be learned from a dead person than from a live person. So it is more useful to talk to those workers who have survived a workplace incident, in other words, a near miss.

One such person in Australia was Theo Venter. Theo is one of the few people who has survived contact with very high voltage while working as linesman. His story is much more complex than this video shows but the video shows both the incident, through re-enactment, and the personal impact of the incident on him and his family.

What the video does not reveal is that Theo’s marriage broke down and he has had to work very hard to rebuild his relationship with his children, children he was unable to hold or hug for many many months.

If Theo had died, there would be no story.

One of the untapped sources of safety information and stories is the Near Miss incident, some call it a Near Hit, more commonly a Close Call. These are rarely investigated even though the amount of information on such an incident is far more than if the near miss had been a fatality.

The difference between a Near Miss and a fatality may be a split second but companies consider that time difference sufficient justification to not take up the learning opportunity presented by the Near Miss. This is, partly, due to nobody making the case for these investigations.

Investigating a Near Miss involves talking directly to the workers involved, getting the best information available. The investigation process shows the rest of the workforce that the management is so committed to workplace safety that they exceed expectations and compliance by investigating events that “did not hurt anyone”.

And the investigation process provides safety stories specific to the workforce and the project being worked on. This is an invaluable source of safety stories for reinforcing safe work practices but it also provides a database of potential incidents that can be shared with the senior management to reinforce the need to keep pushing OHS and encouraging effective supervision of workers.

Imagine being able to report the end of month OHS statistics to the senior managers like this:

“Here are the monthly statistics on the number incidents we have had. And here are revised statistics if we were to include all the near miss incidents.”

Which scenario would provide the company bosses with more accurate picture of workplace safety?

And do companies HAVE to investigate Near Miss incidents? Is there a legislative requirement to do so? No. But the investigation of Near Misses is not about complying with the law, it is about learning from mistakes and managing safety.

Story Structure

There are several online sources of information about the importance of storytelling, TedX presentations can be useful but here is a list of some of the elements of a good story, particularly a safety story.

  • You must know your audience
  • Have a clear message
  • Remove the non-essential
  • Include a conflict
  • Make the audience feel.

Theo Venter tells his story to a variety of workers but I heard him in an auditorium of construction workers. He had been briefed in detail about the demographics of his audience – age, literacy, experience, work tasks etc.

He was concise without being “too polished”. There was an authenticity about his presentation that no one else telling his story could match. It was his story and his to tell.

The primary conflict was one people face every day. Should I perform this task or should I perform this task safely? We don’t consciously think this way though. Theo’s sole aim was to undo a nut, his focus overrode his safety knowledge.

The long term impact of Theo’s presentation on the audience is not his actions that led to his injury but the effect of his injury on himself and his family. This was the emotional impact that the audience felt. He spoke about his marriage breakdown and the damaged relationship with his children but he also talked about the effect the whole incident had on his workmate who was in the bucket with him, and how all of this affected everyone in his workplace.

I mentioned the importance of first hand stories but we don’t want many of those because they all involve great pain and mental trauma. But we all have stories even though we may not be the injured party.

Another, simpler, story structure is

  • Exposition (What’s at risk)
  • Conflict
  • Resolution

I would describe this in the OHS context as

  • Hazard
  • Risk
  • Control

In Victoria, WorkSafe has often referred its basic hazard control process as

  • Find
  • Assess
  • Fix

Find a hazard, determine the level of risk and then eliminate the risk.

If you accept that the hazard control process matches the three-stage story structure then you can build a story from most of the safety incidents in your workplace.
Here’s an example:

“Recently, I was walking along a railway track with a railway worker, Fred. It was a gloomy, cloudy day. I noticed that a piece of railway equipment, an axle counter, looked a bit different from the axle counters I had already passed. I asked Fred what he thought as I reckoned something was missing. Fred said a piece looked like it had been broken off. He rang his supervisor who said he would send out a team with a replacement axle counter but asked for us to flag the broken one.”

It’s not a particularly exciting story and I included the weather reference for a bit of atmosphere but it is a story – a story about safety, a story based on the three-tiered story structure.

I have said that the most effective stories can come from Near Misses and people like Theo Venter, but the Hong Kong Department of Labour provides a terrific resource for stories from its Analyses if Occupational Fatalities Casebooks. Here is one taken from the 2008 Casebook:

“Three free-standing brick walls for displaying mock-up wall tiles were erected in the open area outside the site office of a building construction site. A subcontractor was awarded the contract to demolish these three walls. The deceased was employed to carry out the demolition work. Before the work commenced on the day of the accident, the principal contractor’s site agent told the deceased to erect a tubular scaffold to use as a working platform and to demolish the walls from the top down using an electric hammer. After that, the deceased was left alone to demolish the walls. Just before the accident occurred, a worker employed by another subcontractor happened to walk past the scene. He saw the deceased undermining the foot of one of the walls with an electric concrete breaker. A few seconds later, he heard a loud “bang”. He turned around and found the brick wall collapsed and the deceased trapped by two large shattered pieces of the wall. The deceased was sent to hospital for treatment but passed away on the same day.”

These are the five lessons identified:

  • Brick removal begins from the top layer downwards when demolishing walls
  • Work is carried out layer by layer, with each layer not larger than 300mm
  • Suitable working platforms with guardrails and toe-boards are provided for workers engaged in brick wall demolition.
  • Erection of the working platform is done under the supervision of a competent person.
  • Adequate supervision is exercised to ensure the safety and health of workers at work.
  • Reasonable steps are taken to ensure that workers engaged in brick wall demolition make full and proper use of suitable eye protectors.

It is more likely that the audience will remember the story rather than the lessons. Even if the details of the story fade over time, the teller will remember sufficient for the story to form the basis of a safety discussion.

The Casebooks are filled with stories from a variety of industries.


Another type of story is the Myth but over time, the word Myth has come to describe something that is untrue. In the OHS context there is a lot of effort given to the busting of myths, particularly after a campaign by the United Kingdom’s Health and Safety Executive. The newspapers had been misrepresenting OHS issues for several years, to such an extent that OHS was becoming a joke. The HSE decided to investigate claims of ridiculous OHS reasons and have found hundreds of them to be inaccurate or, as they call them, myths.

The Myth Busters Challenge Panel is now up to 350 findings on myths, instances where OHS has been unjustly used to stop an activity. Number 350 is a report about a nightclub that has banned selfie sticks


A media story reported that a nightclub had become the first in Britain to ban selfie sticks (the mobile phone accessory) over health and safety fears after seeing a surge in people bringing them along on nights out.

Panel opinion

The panel believe that it is entirely reasonable to ban the use of selfie sticks because of the potential to be a nuisance in crowded venues. It is unfortunate this one venue felt the need to add weight to a reasonable decision by quoting “health and safety” when there are no specific rules which apply in such a case.”

For those who are familiar with the Hans Christian Anderson tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes, there is a parallel with the Myth Busters Challenge Panel.


As I grow older, there are increasing demands for me to edit documents to make them easier to read. This has come from the realisation of many academics that the excellent work they do is failing to reach those who can implement their research findings and affect change. There are historical structural reasons for this, primarily the obligation to publish research in journals that have a limited readership and to write research in an academic manner rather than in one that clearly communicates. Partly this situation is a remainder from academics writing for academics but in the world of workplace safety, information needs to be communicated into practice.

This point comes back to one of the story structure points of knowing the audience. I don’t believe this absolutely but one can argue that research without practice is a pointless or selfish exercise. Those researching in areas of occupational health and safety are particularly committed to reducing or preventing harm yet their research has existed in an academic world of restricted circulation of ideas.

One of the most important benefits of stories or rather storytelling is that stories use a language of clarity and simplicity. As soon as many people hear the phrase “Once Upon A Time” they know what to expect and rules of understanding are unconsciously applied.

I think it would be impossible to tell a story in the language that many of us use in our reports to our managers. Business clichés and jargon would seem absurd. In some ways the reports we write are written for the audience, the audience we know, our managers but our managers have expectations of what they want to hear and how they want to hear it. (In many cases our reports are expected to be seen by the legal department and lawyers. There is no surer way to complicate a story that having lawyers involved) Our reports do not necessarily include clarity but it is what the boss expects.

The challenge in OHS at the moment is communicating complex ideas in the simplest of ways WITHOUT sacrificing meaning. It’s a struggle that will continue beyond my lifetime.


Analyses of the application of storytelling in workplaces, particularly in the area of OHS is rare. Stories of the effects of workplace deaths are often compiled but these are, usually, written as part of the grieving process and from a desire to establish a memorial to the dead.

These stories exist for important and very personal reasons but they are rarely communicated through to workplaces and workers. These books contain many stories about the failure of workplace safety systems and illustrate important lessons. It is as if each of the families of the workers whose deaths are recorded in the [Hong Kong] books have told their own stories. These stories provided the social and family impacts of a worker’s death, a perspective that is rarely discussed.

In the Foreword to one particular book “till death us do part” by Elizabeth Horvath Mobayad, John Bottomley writes that the stories of the relatives of dead workers:

“…are an ongoing reminder that our most enduring myth is a lie. Our culture declares that hard work is the means to wealth, or well-being, and personal happiness. But in these accounts you will see that it is the hard workers who are killed. The truth of the matter is that people are killed by their work. And so to protect the myth that underpins our society’s view of the path to happiness, industrial deaths are swept under our collective carpet. The dead are blamed for their own deaths! We turn away from the bereaved and ignore them so we can continue to believe the cultural myths about economic and personal progress.”

It is worth ending an article on storytelling with one of the most pertinent fables to the OHS professional, one that was focussed on in the research paper about the construction industry mentioned earlier.

“A dispute once arose between the North wind and the Sun as to which was the stronger of the two. Seeing a traveller on his way, they agreed to try which the sooner could get his cloak off him. The North Wind began, and sent a furious blast, which, at the onset, nearly tore the cloak from its fastenings; but the traveller, seizing the garment with a firm grip, held it round his body so tightly that the Wind spent his remaining force in vain. The Sun, dispelling the clouds that had gathered, then darted his most sultry beams on the traveller’s head. Growing faint with the heat, the man flung off his cloak, and ran for protection to the nearest shade.”

The moral of this fable is that “Gentleness and kind persuasion win where force and bluster fail.”

Surely this is a storybook a lesson for how to manage occupational health and safety in all of our workplaces.

Kevin Jones

*(Klaus Fog, Christian Budtz. Baris Yakaboylu. 2005 Storytelling: Branding in Practice.)

Categories communication, conference, consultation, Duty of Care, education, ethics, evidence, grief, imagination, literacy, OHS, research, safety

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