Don’t walk the talk

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERASafety does not exist. At least not in itself. There are no ‘from above’ given signs that inform us what safety is, how it works, where the boundaries are or will be, or how safety should optimally be understood. Whatever ‘safety’ is, it must be a human construction – a social convention on how to see and talk about certain aspects of reality. This is not to deny the often tragic reality of ‘accidents’, but to underscore that every aspect of the world of safety can be understood and described in many different ways.

Last year I came across a safety brochure. On the front page was a warning sign, outlined using safety words and concepts: accidents, incidents, PPE, injuries, LTIs, hazards, violations, compliance, warnings, fail-safe, standards, zero harm, risk register, prevention, safety culture, protection, etc.

While these terms may signify certain aspects of the ‘safety reality’, there is nothing in the ‘safety reality’ itself that dictates that these are the words or labels that are the most functional to use. Many of them have probably been imported from disciplines like engineering or law, and now have a taken-for-granted status. It is difficult imagining what a safety world without those words and labels would be like to work in.

This vocabulary guides and shapes the way safety programs are set up, who can and should do what, how resources are spent, the selection of safety performance indicators, or how we believe goals can be achieved. This discourse guides how we are and how we see things in relation to safety.

But perhaps more importantly, maintaining, talking and being this way in relation to safety, disregards other potential ways. By sticking to the usual suspects, unseen potentials remain unused. And until we have access to a different lens, or discourse, we risk being constantly reconfigured to where we currently are.

In discussions with safety professionals, I’ve begun sampling some alternative constructions of traditional categories:

  • ‘Violations’ and ‘short-cuts’ often seem to be endpoint labels for explaining deviations. But what if these were called ‘uninformed adaptations’?  The ‘uninformed’ indicates that perhaps there is more to learn, and more to share. And ‘adaptations’ is a non-judgemental term suggesting there are pressures, variations and complexities  workers need to attend to.
  • Or, what if organisations had schemes for ‘Opportunity reporting’, instead of ‘Incident reporting’? An incident is an opportunity to learn more about the boundary conditions of work processes. But an opportunity is so much more than an incident. It allows people to share their views on negatives as well as positives. Furthermore, ‘opportunity’ is geared towards the future, whereas ‘incident’ relates to something that has happened.
  • What if the goal of Zero Harm was replaced by a goal of 100% Success? Perhaps a success focus could open up safety to focus on supporting people and activities, to have success under a broader set of conditions. Or perhaps safety would be recognised as an investment towards success, rather as (only) something that reduces accidents.
  • Likewise, perhaps the risk management talk about ‘controls’ can be transformed into talking about ‘solutions’. ‘Control’ implies top-down measures, imposing constraints, and adapting reality to an ideal. A ‘solution’, however, subtly shifts the focus to bottom-up needs, to embracing complexity, and to inviting multiple viewpoints to be heard on what might work best.

To be realistic, exchanging safety words and concepts for more positive, neutral or open notions will not magically change things. Words are also embedded in, and connected to, for example, value commitments, policies, and management systems. Change is more likely with a broader transformation of all these practices.

However, linguistic categories shape perceptions, setting the starting point for the discussions that follow. If we want to change how things are done, it may be a good idea to start developing a safety vocabulary that enables the kind of approach of safety that is sought after. Who knows what will happen after that.


  1. Andy Haydon Reply

    I’ve decided to call myself an Organisational Safety Performance practitioner – I’m no longer an “OH&S person” becuase the title has such negative implications for so many people. I’m also an Ontological Coach and have learned that our language creates our reality. Your search for a new paradign is really interesting and reflects my own, long journey in this profession. We have been marginalised because of the methods we have been required to use and I think our approach is no longer effective in today’s world, after all it has changed a bit since our paradigm was first formed. Why don’t you see how members of this blog would feel getting together to see what a collective thinking exercise could create? There are a lot of like minds out there just itching for a chance to start something new, maybe its time the new paradigm was born!

    1. Daniel Hummerdal Post author Reply

      I like your new title Andy! Any reactions to consequences from it? And I’m sure there are lots of innovative ideas out there on how to tweak the safety language to emphasise more functional aspects in relation to safety. Safety would do well with lots of ‘ontological coaching’!

      Also, great idea of getting like-minded people (in this space) in the same room and see where the thinking goes. This obviously comes with some geographical constraints. But such groups can of course be created anywhere in the world. I’m currently looking into adding a forum to the site, on which we may scan interest, as well as coordinate where and when. Should be up and running next week.

      1. Andy Haydon Reply

        I enjoy your articles Daniel. The profession needs to take a serious look at some serious issues of lack of engagement and ineffective languaging. That won’t start if we don’t start it. If you are following other OHS blogs there is a general feeling that a new approach is called for. I’d love to be part of that conversation if I can help?

  2. David Borys Reply

    Daniel I could not agree more with your comment that vocabulary shapes how safety programs are set up. But vocabulary, or language, is more than that. Language is the discriminating factor of being human. Language allows us to share and convey meaning along with our assumptions about how we think the world works. Therefore, language acts as a bridge between the internal assumtions we make about safety and the safety programs we enact. This makes language a valid starting point for a paradigm shift. If we start to talk differently about safety, then we might start to think differently and enact safety programs of a entirely different shape. Furthermore, language would act as a useful measure of this paradigm shift if attention is paid to how safety professionals, managers, academics, regulators and judges start to talk about safety differently. In this case walking a different talk is necessary to bring about a paradigm shift.

    In my view, the current safety paradigm is enacted through the language of work-as-imagined:

    Zero harm
    Human error
    Safe behaviour observations
    OHS management systems
    Zero tolerance
    Safety rules
    Golden rules
    Learning from failure
    Root cause analysis
    Lost time injuries

    The new paradigm of work and performance could be enacted the language of work-as-done:

    Social processes
    Performance variability
    Learning from success
    Socially construction

    The current paradigm is one of constraint. The new paradigm is one of adaptation. A starting point for a paradigm shift could be to sqeeze more value out of existing safety programs by asking the question: if we loosened constraint and opened our minds to adaptation, what more could we learn that would improve performance? This will not be easy, but it will be worthwhile.

  3. Patrick Paul Reply

    It is refreshing and very innovative. I am so happy to know that I am not the only one with the same view. In my opinion, an evolution of the mind and language in the safety world is a must if we want to inspire and and engage creativity and positive reaction from our collegues friends and personnal in our work place. I would be very happy to join you and other like minded collegues in an initiative to establish a new progressive Safety vocabulary with a less authoritarian tone.
    We all know the Safety guy that frightens his subordinates and collegues with these outdated and often ineffective and mis understood terms. I think for sure, its time for real positive changes in the way we conduct and communicate our concerns as professionals and to embrace initiatives such as this . You can count me in

  4. Ben Kirkbride Reply

    It interesting how the mind itself can shift after seeing things in a different light, perspective or lens. I would just like to share my view since embarking on further higher education and reading more and more about the concepts of safety considering many of the subject matter experts, Hale, Dekker, Hollnagel, Hopkins, Guldenmund, the list goes on.

    It has already changed my way of thinking and as for the language view David has mentioned, I have commenced using alternative words when discussing safety to individuals especially when they talk about ‘culture’ for example. I have used the term ‘journey’ as it is very clear that there is not just one thing that can improve this entirely, considering how loosely the word culture can be used its not that easy to just ‘turn it around’. Journey of adapting is the concept in my mind when discussing the factor.

    After only completing my first semester at UB this year and with now mind full of knowledge already, it’s difficult not to just express what I have learnt by unleashing on managers and supervisors with types of language that they wouldn’t understand or concepts they just wouldn’t get not without a long winded discussion anyway, so this is a subtle way I have introduced one of many concepts in influencing this change.

    Very interested in this space.

  5. Karthik Reply

    Excellent thinking!! Yes calls for lot of mindset change to project the profession with a Positive Connotation. Every professional wants to work for the positive aspect as enabler. As long as the regulatory environment dictates such non positive aspects, in a regulatory driven environment a collective way forward will be tough challenge….

    I recollect in my Corporate days when we wanted to work towards Lean based Safety implementation, the Balance score card approach was contemplated, it took 3 years to push to that approach (Yes 5% weightage was still given to TCIR from 100%)…..

    Positive way to work the safety implementation is the way to go!! This will happen sooner!!! In our life time!!!May be Yes!!!

  6. Renee THOMPSON Reply

    It is a real joy to read an article such as this.
    One of the small but meaningful changes in my workplace was to change the wording of some Policies for example Discrimination, Bullying and Harassment Policy to Respect and Fairness.
    Removing the negative. Just a shame we require these policies in the first place.

  7. John Hayman Reply

    The real challenge lies within ourselves as “OHS professionals” and changing our habitual tendancies to refer to safety in terms as imagined. It is through changing our practices and influencing fellow colleagues through the ranks that change is progressively made. Incorporating this terminology in text through organisations such as the Body of Knoweledge, legislation and universities that train future OHS professionals that real changes in safety culture and thinking will occur… It will have an osmotic effect on workforce employers to initiate change. It is amazing how a few inspirational and dedicated people can open the eyes of many and create a wave of change. Real success is measured by the few people that are followers.. Those willing to take an idea from someone and go with it.

  8. Les Henley Reply

    I’ve enjoyed reading the article and all the following comments.
    The one thing that strikes me, and I believe it to be a ‘root cause’ issue, is that we use a lot of words within ‘safety language’ that are often not clearly defined or even used by 2 different people to mean the same thing.
    The problem then, that I see with all the preceding coments, is that we are looking at changing one set of words without clear definitons for another set of words without clear definitions. And some responders have clearly agreed with the principle without clarifying what the definitions of the new words will mean. I imagine that each responder has their own idea of what the new words mean, but does their idea align with the person who wrote them? Are we agreeing to a common, clear set of words with clear definitions or will we just use them to mean what we believe them to mean?
    This would leave us wide open to returning to the current problem of 2 people hearing the same word but inferring different meaning from it.
    For me the primary issue for us, as safety professionals, is to make sure that when we use a ‘technical word’ (even the term ‘safety’) the listener actually understands what we mean by that term.
    I was introduced to a new employee yesterday. The Executive manager who introduced me referred to me as ‘in charge of all thing safety’. I quickly corrected him, in front of the new employee, to say “My title is Advisor – I’m not in charge of anything. I am employed to provide advice and guidance in matters of safety. The Managers are in charge of safety”. He did a double take, thought for a moment and replied ‘you’re right’.
    Communication (or lack of) is a primary cause of so much misunderstanding and conflict in the world.
    From the start, and consistently, we need to check with the listener, or the speaker, to understand what they believe a term means BEFORE we respond to what is said.
    Let’s not start a new ‘flavour of the month’ safety initiative – let’s establish a sound platform that will stand the test of time.

  9. Jon Temby Reply

    Hi Daniel et al
    You have captured an important trigger for rethinking and hopefully redirecting how safety is viewed and integrated across everyday business management.

    Thank you for the contributions toward innovative progress and future focussed success, you can count on my support as well

  10. Paulo Siqueira Reply

    It is very common to have beside the main gate a sign stating “We are working XXX days without injury accidents.” but which is the actual meaning of this? Which is the real message that this poses? Is it positive or negative? Yes, it depends on how people see it.

    Certain day the company received a visitor. The safety technician pointed the sign “We are working more than 1.742 days without accidents”. He was very proud of the achievement. It was more than four years without a single lost time injury. The visitor stopped and looking the placard and simple said: So you have accidents here!
    For the most of us long accustomed to the language and perhaps unconscious of the other possible meaning, the high score was positive. For the visitor no matter the number but the fact that accidents occur in that workplace.

    Why most of companies measure the safety by using negative approach? We never see “We are working 545 days without a new contract” or “We are working for 30 days without selling the new product”, for example. Why safety must be different?

    After that visit the negative sign was replaced for another like “You are visiting a safe workplace that conducts its operations in harmony with the environment”.
    Not to say that changing the sign the company stopped having accidents, no. The need was to change the approach, to be more proactive than reactive. This small action motivated several others and triggered the change in doing things in a different way.
    Daniel, thanks for the article.

  11. Kekeletso Selepe Reply

    Hi all , this is all true that some of the ‘normal’ ways and the language used in the safety environment need to change because of the negativity attached to it .

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