Monash University
4597033_monash_80107.pdf (1.82 MB)

Constructing the safe workplace: the dance of subjectivity, power and agency in the performance of OHS

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posted on 2017-01-31, 04:15 authored by Wadick, Philip
Previous research has demonstrated that working safely is often problematic and is subject to many competing pressures that workers must navigate. People want to be safe at work but they often prioritise other workplace imperatives over their own health and safety. The research described in this thesis focused on the relationships between power, subjectivity and agency in learning to work safely. The purpose of this study was to understand how workers learn to become effective OHS subjects by examining how they come to constitute themselves in relation to OHS. To achieve this, an interpretive, hermeneutic framework within poststructural theories of subject formation was used as a basis for the research methodology. It is influenced by Foucauldian and poststructural understandings of language, meaning, subjectivity, discourse and truth, and power/knowledge. Qualitative ethnographic methods were used for data collection such as interviews, participant observations, open ended questionnaires, field notes, document analysis and researcher reflections. A large portion of the data was produced through people‟s stories as they tried to make sense of their OHS experiences. Data analysis was informed by the poststructural concept of agency in which people are not freely agentic but think and act within the range of choices offered by particular discourses. The language used in speaking OHS into existence is couched in a vocabulary of compliance and conflict and workers often situate themselves within oppositional binaries. It became clear from the data that OHS subjectivity is constituted within competing pressures, and that individual agency is constrained by discourses that often privilege costs and production over worker health and safety, which are deeply embedded in the power relations at work. Workers often do not speak up about their health and safety concerns because of these power relations that threaten them with perceived negative consequences. A post modern emergent methodology enabled the conceptualising of new subjectivities and new knowledges, including alternative modes of representation such as poetry, creative writing, drama and cartoon. A politics of xii hope was developed by finding examples of where workers had disrupted historically produced binaries and found energy for change in the space between the arbitrary and unhelpful oppositions. It was suggested that learning to constitute proactive agentic OHS subjectivities is more likely in workplaces that ensure workers have adequate OHS knowledge and skills, provide ample opportunity to use this knowledge/skills, and kindle their desire to do so. Success is enhanced in workplaces where all the actors and stakeholders are acutely and reflexively aware of how power operates in all its micro locations.


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Principal supervisor

Margaret Somerville

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre



Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type



Faculty of Education

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