Safety 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.