Symbolic interactionism in safety communication in the workplace

Document Type

Book Chapter


Emerald Group Publishing Limited


Faculty of Education and Arts


Office of Associate Dean - Research and Higher Degrees (FEA) / Centre for Research in Entertainment, Arts, Technology, Education and Communications




Australian Research Council

Grant Number

ARC Number : LP0668220


Teague, C. C., Leith, D. R., & Green, L. R. (2013). Symbolic interactionism in safety communication in the workplace. In N. K. Denzin (Eds.). 40th Anniversary of Studies in Symbolic Interactionism (pp. 175-199). Bingley, England: Emerald Group Publishing Limited. Original book available here


This chapter uses symbolic interactionism as a theoretical framework for considering data produced during two in-depth ethnographic investigations: one at Orco, a minerals processing facility; the other at RTE, the Rail Transport Executive of an urban region in Australia. It discusses the value of symbolic interactionism in revealing the detailed importance of interaction between managers and workers and, particularly, within specific workgroups. It argues that regular, repeated and intense interaction such as characterizes daily work in high-pressure occupations helps establish subcultures. It is then comparatively easy for a subculture group to develop its own values and meanings in opposition to those promulgated by management. The two case studies differ significantly around the organizational value placed on investigating injuries and accidents. In the Orco workplace, injury statistics are clearly communicated and workers believe that the “zero injury workplace” is a management priority. In the RTE, transit officer injuries are kept confidential and workers believe that a major purpose of investigations is to show how individual workers are at fault. In both cases, however, the work group has developed an informal safety culture at odds with that promoted by managers.The conclusion drawn by the end of the chapter is that managers seeking to influence the safety cultures of workers in dangerous and fraught occupations should pay close attention to the ways in which those workers operate at a symbolic distance from management. They should engage with the workers to understand the symbolic value placed by frontline staff upon the meanings attributed to safe work practices, and should collaborate together to develop a shared safety culture in which workers are protected by active management engagement in their symbolic reality. Where this occurs, workers’ perspectives are appreciated at the same time as their practices become more regulated and aligned with managerial wishes. Symbolic interactionism offers a rich perspective that takes into account the dynamism of changing circumstances and that works outwards from the thought processes of individuals through to interactions across entire organizations