The safety-fication of everything

3431203874_d0ec158204_zSome time ago, I noticed the safety-fication of everything. I noticed that otherwise fairly ordinary words have been co-opted to give a specific safety meaning. Once I noticed this, I couldn’t stop noticing it. So a few months ago, I started to log two-word safety terms (and a few three-word terms) that I encountered when reading and communicating with others.  The log literally led to an A-Z of terms, which I have included below.

The terms are very different in terms of ontology, or their essential nature. Some of the terms are conceptual or abstract (e.g. Safety Culture, Safety Mindfulness; some are of arguable ontological status!), while others are practical or concrete (e.g. Safety Magazine, Safety Barrier [some of which really are concrete]). Some concern roles and jobs (e.g. Safety Officer, Safety Auditor), devices/equipment (e.g. Safety Valve. Safety Boots), documents (e.g. Safety Procedure, Safety Notice), processes (e.g. Safety Assessment, Safety Method), and organisational functions (e.g. Safety Department, Safety Division – interesting separators in themselves). Some concern a particular industry (e.g. Aviation Safety, Patient Safety), and some are general across industries (e.g. Occupational Safety, Process Safety).

The list has raised a lot of question for me, concerning the (real) purpose of the language that we use in safety professions and how this language is received by others. I wonder whether safety-fication is a symptom of déformation professionelle. I am not sure to what extent other functions and professions (e.g. quality, efficiency, production, sustainability) do the same (I guess they do). But I wondered to what extent the safety-fication of everything might have had the unintended consequence of alienating others by separating and isolating ‘safety’ (whatever we mean by that) from other prioritised organisational and personal goals or needs (e.g. efficiency, cost, production, quality, sustainability, excitement, fun, relatedness, community).

The key issues that come to mind for me when I look at the list concern the origin and purpose of the terms, and the interest in and adoption of the term. Each term has a story. It is interesting to think about how the term came into being, who introduced it, and why – what was its purpose, and what is its purpose now? Most of the terms seem to represent an idea or initiative which has been imposed (top-down), while some have emerged (bottom-up). The terms certainly serve particular purposes, agendas and needs.

The interest in the terms, however, raised the most questions for me. The terms seem to evoke various levels of interest from various people, for different reasons. Some are aimed at ‘management’ (e.g. Safety Dashboards, Safety Leadership [which is usually aimed at managers]), while others are aimed at ‘workers’ (e.g. Behavioural Safety, Safety Compliance). Some of the safety terms are in fairly widespread use (e.g. Health & Safety), while others are specialist terms used only by safety professionals (e.g. Safety Targets, Functional Safety).

The reasons for interest in the terms and the reactions towards them – including the reactions (emotional, cognitive, behavioural and social) – are also interesting. Some terms (though relatively few) seem to attract people and are adopted willingly, even with enthusiasm or commitment, among non-safety specialists (e.g. Flight Safety, Patient Safety), while others attract mostly safety professionals (e.g. Safety Measures). Most terms, typically associated with compliance (e.g. Safety Standards, Safety Requirement), seem to encounter resistance and need to be actively promoted or sold, sometimes by other safety terms (e.g. Safety Incentives, Safety Argument)! Several terms are associated with enforcement (e.g. Safety Regulation, Safety Legislation, Safety Policy). Some terms seem have a burdensome tone (e.g. Safety Audit, Safety Accountabilities), associating them with a job or task that people outside the profession may well want to avoid (e.g. Safety Auditor, Safety Oversight). Some (e.g. ‘Elf ‘n’ Safety) even encounter ridicule. An underlying issue seems to be competition or conflict with other goals, demands or needs. Fundamental to this is the view that we tend to have of safety – unlike most other goals – that it essentially concerns avoidance (of accidents). Does this, paradoxically, lead to an avoidance of ‘Safety Stuff’.

Is safety-fication a thing? Is is an issue? Should those of us in safety professions do anything about it? Perhaps we should be mindful of the (real) need to attach ‘Safety’ to other words, or at least think though the possible unintended consequences of this. It can also be a good idea to discuss this with someone who is outside the safety profession. While in many cases the word serves a useful purpose, in other cases it seems that the word ‘safety’ could be removed or interchanged (for ‘work’ or ‘system’, for instance).

We might even think more carefully about what we actually mean by safety, and whether another perspective on safety (e.g. Safety-II) might help reframe some of these terms or atleast how we use the some of them. Ironically Safety-II is itself another safety term, and Erik Hollnagel himself has said that he wishes could find a replacement word. The word I would use as a shorthand for Safety-II is Effectiveness, which reunites or realigns safety with purpose.

The A-Z of Safety

  • A is for Safety Accountabilities, Safety Analysis, Safety Arguments, Safety Assessment, Safety Audit, Safety Auditor, Safety Authority, Aviation Safety
  • B is for Safety Barrier, Behavioural Safety, Safety Bingo, Safety Boots, Safety Briefing, Safety Bulletin
  • C is for Safety Case, Safety Champion, Safety Climate, Safety Commitment, Safety Compliance, Safety Consultant, Safety Culture
  • D is for Safety Data, Safety Dashboard, Safety Department, Safety Development, Safety Differently, Safety Director, Safety Division
  • E is for Safety Education, ‘Elf n Safety, Safety Emergence, Safety Engineer, Safety Engineering
  • F is for Safety Factor, Safety First!, Flight Safety, Food Safety, Safety Function, Functional Safety
  • G is for Safety Guru
  • H is for Safety Hazards, Health & Safety, Highway Safety
  • I is for Safety Incentives, Safety Improvement, Safety Incident, Safety Indicators, Safety Induction, Industrial Safety, Inherent Safety, Safety Inspection, Safety Inspector, Safety Innovation, Safety Integrity, Safety Integrity Level, Safety Intelligence, Internet Safety, Safety Investigation
  • J is for Safety Jackpot, Job Safety, Safety Journey, Safety Justification
  • K is for Safety Kaizen
  • L is for Safety Leadership, Safety Learning, Safety Legislation
  • M is for Safety Magazine, Safety Management, Safety Management System, Safety Margin, Safety Measures, Safety Meeting, Safety Methods, Safety Mindfulness, Safety Moments
  • N is for Safety Nets, Safety Notice, Nuclear Safety
  • O is for Occupational Safety, Safety Occurrence, Safety Officer, Operational Safety, Organisational Safety, Safety Oversight
  • P is for Patient Safety, Safety Performance, Safety Plan, Safety Policy, Positive Safety, Safety Poster, Safety Procedure, Process Safety, Safety Programme, Safety Promotion, Psychological Safety, Public Safety
  • Q is for Safety Quantification
  • R is for Safety Raffle, Railway Safety, Safety Recommendation, Safety Regulation, Safety Report, Safety Representative, Safety Requirements, Safety Research, Safety Risk, Road Safety
  • S is for Safety, Safety-I, Safety-II, Safety Advisor, Safety Sign, Safety Slogan, Safety Solutions, Safety Specification, Safety Standards, Safety Story, System Safety
  • T is for Safety Targets, Safety Taxonomy, Safety Theory, Safety Training
  • U is for Utility Safety
  • V is for Safety Validation, Safety Valve, Safety Verification, Safety Video, Safety Vs Productivity
  • W is for Safety Warning, Workplace Safety
  • X is for Safety eXpert, Safety eXpo, Safety eXcellence
  • Y is for Youth Safety
  • Z is for Safety Zone, Safety Zzzzz (OK, that one I have not heard or read as a term, but have certainly seen it.)

Photo: Jonathan Warner CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


  1. Rob Long Reply

    Thanks for the article Steven, a great reminder of the power of semiotics to socially construct the obsession with safety. The whole safety II thing just astounds me how much safety refuses to step outside of its own technicist framework. Why is it that when we want to learn about safety we ask an engineer??? It’s not that a reframing is safety is not necessary but it cannot be reframed using the same language. I don’t care if the label is ‘human factors’ or whatever, if it remains situated in the discourse and semiotics of engineering, science or systems it will unconsciously pursue those ends.

  2. Steven Shorrock Post author Reply

    Thanks Rob. Many of our methods and terms have transferred from engineering and process safety (e.g. FMEA, PSA). Our mechanistic, reductionistic and deterministic frameworks and language perhaps serve to reduce our own uncertainty in variable, rather messy sociotechnical systems and situations. That is not to say there is no room for them (especially for design at the micro-level), but that there is a great need for different ways of seeing and understanding situations, systems and changes. A friend on twitter noted an organisation which is ‘running an experiment by removing all safety notices etc and integrating it in “work”‘ (less ‘apart from’, and more ‘a part of’?). Perhaps the separation of safety stuff leads to a sort of blindsight.

  3. Ron Butcher Reply

    Safety has to be considered as a product of the organization, in parallel with the primary product or service. It has to be created and maintained.

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