The most influential book about modern OHS

I have a lot of books about workplace safety.  Many of them are referenced frequently, several have changed my thoughts.  However if I was asked which book has had the most impact on my values and understanding of occupational health and safety (OHS), my response would be of a book I read before I even knew OHS existed.  That book is The Story of Ferdinand, and this is why.

Ferdinand is a bull who wants to sit under a cork tree and smell the flowers.  The world intervenes on this idyll and Ferdinand, with the help of a bee sting on the bum, is taken to the bullring.  Things do not work out and Ferdinand eventually returns to his tree.

This story has been interpreted as a political, anti-fascist book and has been banned but it has been enormously popular. (I received the 75th anniversary edition hardcover in a slipcase for a recent birthday.)

As OHS has expanded to included social and psychological issues and hazards, The Story of Ferdinand, can be viewed in terms of workplace bullying, pardon the pun, amongst others.

Ferdinand is expected to perform in a stereotypical bullish fashion in the bullring, the workplace.  He is not the right fit for that workplace or the job expectations of the Matador, picadores, banderilleros or the audience.  The workplace is designed to manage the performance of the bulls by sticking ribboned pins and spears into the bull in order to have the bulls work/perform in specific ways.  Ferdinand refuses to participate and change his character to conform and is returned to his field after the bullring/workplace has suffered reputational damage.

Underpinning this is a concise illustration of gender and what it means to be male.  Ferdinand knows from his youth that the regular masculine activities are not for him.  In this he has the important support of his mother.  Ferdinand’s pain from being stung by a bee is misinterpreted as ferocity and rage and he is taken to the bullring.

That workplace is built around a blood sport and the purpose of the workers we see is to enrage the bull and, ultimately, to kill the bull for the pleasure of the audience.  Testosterone is a constant cultural cloud in this world where Ferdinand lives.

The business and the workers have preconceived perceptions of bullfighting with which Ferdinand does not fit.

“They called him Ferdinand the Fierce and all the Banderilleros were afraid of him and the Picadores were afraid of him and the Matador was scared stiff.”

But

“[Ferdinand] wouldn’t fight and be fierce no matter what they did.  He just sat and smelled. And the Banderilleros were mad and the Picadores were madder and the Matador was so mad he cried because he couldn’t show off with his cape and sword.”

Such a workplace climate would test the strongest person but many of us work, or have worked, in places that have such pressures, values and expectations.  In the modern interpretation of OHS, such organisational values and workplace pressures can harm the mental health of the worker and therefore need changing and controlling.

Ferdinand survives this ordeal because he stays true to himself.  The story structure gives Ferdinand an easy path through these problems compared to what people can face in their workplaces.  Ferdinand experiences all of this without any apparent psychological harm and this is not likely to be the case with most people.

It may also be possible to think about The Story of Ferdinand in terms of work/balance.

The simplicity of the storytelling in this book is exactly why it can be open to many different interpretations.  Publishers would speak of this as maximising the readership spread.  The simplicity speaks to everyone in different ways but hooks every reader in some way whether it be the prettiness of the ladies in the audience, the bravado of the Matador, the mother’s understanding, or Ferdinand’s strong sense of self, or something else.

As I walk round workplaces, interview experts and talk with workers, I see bits of The Story of Ferdinand in the people I meet, the experiences of work and the expectations of managers and executives.  Clearly the book penetrated my various consciousness effectively at an early age, as children’s books and stories are meant to.  I am glad it did and will resist the temptation to think about The Story about Ping as about worker exploitation.

Kevin Jones

Categories book, bullying, culture, gender, health, occupational, OHS, psychiatric, psychosocial, safety

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