We gauge the value of our jobs in predictable ways. There is the salary we earn, the raises we view as milestones and the bonuses we receive. There is the title that precedes us and the corner office in which we sit (or hope to someday). There are the promotions, the capital letters after our names and the lists of honorary positions we hold. We fill a resum? — or online networks — with well-worded achievements and complete year-end reports detailing the bottom-line impact of our daily toils. We shake hands with and collect cards from contacts who impress.
These are all notable and impressive accomplishments. Any individual should be proud to count a fraction of these as a part of their professional portfolio. But in the admirable effort to pursue that secular, capitalist version of Max Weber’s Protestant work ethic, a shade of value has been underappreciated — if recognized at all.
The Greek word kalokagatia is defined as beauty-good. Ancient Greek philosophers examined life and its achievements with these parallel ideals: what is beautiful is good and what is good is beautiful. These qualities together form the pinnacle of human endeavor.
Why should you care? According to this collection of fairly respectable thinkers, if your life is beautiful you have achieved something noble and, according to their hierarchy of beliefs, something nearly divine. We may hope that our jobs are not our lives, at least entirely. But working another late night at the office or head-butting a deadline after the family has gone to bed, would it not be nice to think that your efforts — despite the impression of the moment — are, in fact, beautiful?
Within risk management lies such beauty.
The Art of Safety Design
One place to start examining the beauty of the risk profession is in safety product designs. Some of the top experts in the art field provide ample persuasion with their analysis of unnoticed delights in your midst.
In 2005, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York recognized the art of risk management in its exhibition “Safe: Designers Take on Risks.” The works on display ranged from theoretical designs to the practical tools familiar to many risk professionals: from the Lumber Pro Class 3 Safety Boot and the Class 95 Particulate Respirator to the Prepare Oregon UNDERtheTABLE Workstation Safety Kit and the Yaktrax Walker for icy conditions. Even airplane passenger briefing cards were displayed for their artistry.
“Each design had to transcend the outcome of the equation of its form and function by displaying meaning…and, last but not least, ingenious beauty,” stated MoMA senior curator of architecture and design Paola Antonelli in the exhibition catalogue.
By simply surrounding yourself and your employees with such safety designs of “ingenious beauty” you create beauty in your job. But this is just the start. “Aesthetic pursuit is enriched by an appreciation of function and technology as well as economy of means,” Antonelli stated.
In this way, the risk professional is instrumental in fostering beauty and not just taking care of designers’ creativity. You play a vital part in creating the beauty in that piece of equipment by promoting its use. You allow an appealing design to display its meaning.
If the beauty in a piece of safety equipment is a combination of its function and aesthetic, and clearly you understand the function, you are left to examine the aesthetic. How can you look at those defibrillators and see their intrinsic beauty? Take a cue from the professionals.
In evaluating works that represent the very best of the design world, the curators considered form, function, meaning, innovation, cultural impact, product lifecycle and necessity. You too can apply those qualifications. Consider, for example, that defibrillator on the wall.
“We were particularly drawn to the ‘heartzap’ symbol, which needs no explanation,” said Antonelli of the HeartStart defibrillator. “Even inside the case, a good design continues. Such lavishness of lines and colors might seem almost indulgent for such an emergency design, but everything works and is in its place, so why not give the object the respect it deserves by making it also elegant? Beauty should not cost more than ugliness, and it certainly does not go against functionality and clarity. Quite the opposite.”
Antonelli’s analysis of design also implies a beauty in the risk management profession itself. When she describes a successful safety design as resulting in “grace under pressure,” she could just as well be referring to the essence of risk management. And what is more beautiful than grace?
The Factory Floor Dance
When examining your workplace for ergonomic risks, the OSHA checklist seems far from a theatrical read: manual material handling — check; physical energy demands — check; musculoskeletal demands — check; tools — check.
Little on the list would reveal that one of ergonomics’ originators used dance to inspire its creation. Years before the word ergonomics would be used as it is today, however, one of its earliest developers, Rudolf Laban, moved from choreographing on the stage to choreographing on the factory floor. In the 1940s he studied the motions of laborers in the same way he had analyzed his dance proteges, intent on creating a better, safer way to work.
Laban identified wasted motions and actions likely to cause injury among workers and choreographed new methods for getting the job done. Corporations would hire the Art in Movement Studio, founded by Laban and colleague F.C. Lawrence, to coordinate a set of improved motions — a work dance of sorts — for the employees to perform. Workers reduced their injuries and the companies enhanced their efficiency.
Move forward a half century, and in a place where you might not expect artistic inspiration, OSHA’s definition of ergonomics rings of Laban’s artistic theories. “Ergonomics is the science of fitting workplace conditions and job demands to the capabilities of the working population,” according to OSHA. “Effective and successful ‘fits’ assure high productivity, avoidance of illness and injury risks, and increased satisfaction among the workforce.”
Irmgard Bartenieff, a dancer, choreographer and proponent of Laban’s work, describes the aim of Laban-inspired movement analysis with similar spirit in her book, Body Movement: Coping with the Environment. “The possibility of moving in new ways with less risk strengthens courage to tolerate continuous movement and change with stability and delight,” she wrote. “Understanding the parts helps one recreate the whole, to enliven its mobility, and to play harmoniously with a continuously changing environment.”
Who knew a government agency would have so much in common with a dancer? In the same line, who knew you could be considered a choreographer when you assumed your risk management functions? And yet, based on the work of Laban and many who followed his lead, the ergonomic efforts you enact make you just that.
The more successful an ergonomic program is, the more closely workplace motions resemble that of a dance. In fact, when looking to improve their workplace ergonomic issues, many companies continue to utilize the dance community, which provides its expertise in the beauty of motion to create a better employee “dance.”
Staring across the factory floor may not initially reveal the beauty. Perhaps stop action film or photography could reveal patterns of motion that resemble those of a well-rehearsed theatrical performance. But even so, the element of beauty with which Laban was most concerned — and for which the risk professional is responsible — lies in the depth of the performance in much the same way that design is judged by a combination of its form and function.
“It is natural for all living organisms to use the simplest and easiest paths in space when fighting, not only when the fight is a matter of life and death, but also in other activities, since all working is a kind of fighting and struggling with objects and materials,” wrote Laban in The Language of Movement. “Everywhere economy of effort is in evidence, including all kinds of bodily locomotion.”
The finest ballet is more than a series of footsteps, leaps and lifts. In the same way, a well-choreographed and safe working environment incorporates more than a how-to instruction manual; heart and mind play an equally important role.
Just as it took a choreographer, the purveyor of beauty in the world of dance, to recognize the multi-layered mechanism of human movement in the workplace, it takes effective risk managers — choreographers in their own right, purveyors of beauty in risk mitigation — to understand these same elements in their programs. The beauty in the choreography of safety for your workforce is as elegant and powerful as a ballet.
The Poetry of a Policy
Anyone in the risk management profession understands the importance of language. A single, precisely chosen word in an insurance policy has the capacity to either deny or provide the coverage you seek. Court decisions and legal papers are filled with debates determining that meaning.
According to Stephen Clarke, vice president of commercial multi-lines at ISO, as the insurance contract grew from a gentleman’s agreement sealed with a handshake to a legally binding document to be interpreted in court, companies had to rely on the power of the word to carry their intentions. Precision and clarity — in word choice and arrangement — best achieve this and, in the process, reveal an art to the use of language. Whether constructed in complex phrasing or the simplest of statements, words produce both powerful functionality and appealing beauty when they perform a task perfectly.
“Clauses can be as elegant as a finely engineered German automobile or as utilitarian as your grandfather’s pickup truck,” said Clarke. “Now, you would never want to try to remove a tree stump from the ground with a Mercedes Benz, but both vehicles serve their respective means.”
The power of a word in a policy to potentially create less-than-desirable interpretations, however, sometimes hinders its chance to be marveled. That is, you may be so concerned with the possible risk implications, that you allow no room to step back and see its poetic beauty.
In fact, you may have already subconsciously seen the beauty of a word when you unconsciously have flinched in reflection of its emotionally charged power. Following the September 11 attacks, the terrorism policies that developed forced writers and recipients to face language that described incidents of which no one needed reminding. By acknowledging the capacity of such words to carry emotion, you recognize their beauty to convey the human experience.
Now, dive off the practical and serious edge for a moment to enjoy the intrinsic beauty of language apart from its implications in a work day. Taking a word from its context can degrade its power, but because the gravity surrounding language often intimidates, its beauty may be easier to appreciate released of its function. You can ease your defenses and admire it. Should you do this while crafting or reviewing a policy? Probably not. But in a stolen moment, discover the delight in what is otherwise an ordinary or, at worse, stressful job requirement.
In a word we uncover stories and histories. In its etymology we find its founding cultures, the people who uttered it in eras past and the ways we changed how it is used today. In an act of beauty, a single word, fully considered, inspires.
For the word geeks, this makes a fine diversion. But aside from the fun, the exercise reminds anyone of the amazing power of words, even the common ones of which we take little notice. You can understand how a creatively positioned word can produce a clear and precise meaning not previously considered. The beauty of language comes from this power and can be found in the seemingly driest of documents; the same words can not only determine the fate of our practical policies but stir our imaginations.
Now, should all of these attempts to bring greater attention to the concepts of beauty — whether in motion, language or design — seem like trivial pursuits, consider that parlor games, albeit of a mathematical variety, can be credited with the development of the actuarial science without which modern day insurance would not exist.
In 1901, Miles Menander Dawson wrote of the dawn of probability study and the mathematics of insurance. “What seemed to the schoolmen only elegant and frivolous speculation, highly amusing because of the frequently startling results, was the missing word to unseal the secrets of probabilities.”
It seems as though the admiration of beauty can bring about some startlingly practical solutions.