Atmospheres of uncertainty: work environments, ways of knowing, and being safe
(University of Stirling)
Paper short abstract:
This paper explores workplace 'atmospheres of uncertainty' and the skilled ways that workers perform safety in these environments by bringing together organizational and regulated ways of knowing with the personal, embodied, and tacit.
Paper long abstract:
This paper recounts ethnographic exploration into 'atmospheres of uncertainty' in the context of occupational safety and health (OSH) research. The field of OSH (dominated by ergonomic and psychological approaches) has paid little attention to the entanglement of safety and the atmospheric qualities of specific workplaces. This omission reflects a conceptual commitment to OSH as abstracted and regulated 'knowledge' rather than situated and practiced 'ways of knowing'. Informed by anthropological scholarship on safety, phenomenological approaches, and a call for 'atmospheric inquiry' into 'the lived experiences' of 'practice risks' (Ferguson 2010), the paper responds by investigating how, through their everyday activities, workers encounter and navigate atmospheres of uncertainty; or the ongoingly changing configurations of bodies, spaces, tools, and emotions through which workplace environments emerge. Using ethnographic examples from fieldwork undertaken with community healthcare, logistics, and construction workers, analysis reveals the skilled ways that workers bring together (and blur the boundaries between) regulated and organizational OSH with personal, embodied, and tacit ways of knowing. Safety is thus shown to be perceived and performed in relation to material, sensory, and affective contingencies. By reflecting on the author's experience of moving with workers through building sites and other peoples' homes, the paper simultaneously offers methodological consideration for further accessing and understanding safety as constituted through a complex entanglement of everyday practices, ways of knowing, and workplace atmospheres.
Exploring 'atmospheres': an anthropological approach?