We all do it, we use language to both inform and at times mislead. However, when the latter happens in the field of OHS it can be a very damaging to standards. I’d like to draw attention to one such (class of) circumstance but I’m not sure that the very language I need to use as demonstration will be acceptable within this communication domain.
Some years back I tried to provide a means for linguistic interaction between some academic language and that of workers. I hoped that parcels of theory and practice could interact to highlight strengths and weaknesses, as a kind of OHS reality check. Once a word or a concept is understood communication has only started as an approximation. I was trying to allude to other, subtler tools of language that must also be understood. For example, it’s important to take note of tone, irony, sarcasm, analogy and metaphor. These are all tools used in ordinary conversations, they not only deliver information, but may in fact provide pointers to essential meanings intended. It’s hardly news to state that even a pause or a comma can make all the difference. Try, “What is this thing called ‘Love’?” and “What is this thing called, Love?”
I asked a worker on a large demolition project (that within a year killed a man) how good was the local OHS system and how well was it supported by management. The response was less than enthusiastic. I then tried to get a sense for actual OHS practice, I needed a real example. I asked this measured, neck-tattooed forklift operator of about 56 how he decided what size and type of forklift to use for which load. Was there a policy? Was there a standard operating procedure (SOP)? Was there any written document…….. or what? He was sitting at the time in one of the heavy forklifts on the site, a large machine about to lift and shift a huge load.
He looked at me soberly, considered the question for some time (as if he was ‘tasting’ it) and said – slowly demonstrating with his arms and body: “I sit here in this seat, brother, and drive the forklift towards, say, that pallet over there. I then push the tines [forks] into the pallet and real gentle like try and lift the load”. “Do you at any stage do some sort of risk assessment?” I asked. “I’m just tellin’ you” he said patiently. “I then give it a bit more power and try to lift it harder. If it still don’t lift I give it a bit more power … and then a bit more.
Now, let’s say it still don’t want to lift, nothing. I then give it a bit more power and if then instead of the load lifting at the front end the back end of the machine starts lifting under me [and he slowly raised himself off the seat looking ominously into my eyes], or even jerks up suddenly from the back….. and me arsehole starts twitching [and he demonstrated with his thumb and forefinger], I then know that it’s the wrong forklift for this job, too risky!”, and he sank thoughtfully back into the seat.
That was when I coined the terms Phenomenology of Twitching Arsholes (POTA) to try and capture that linguistic intersection between theory and practice, between workplace reality and the theoretical aspirations of some academic thought. And sadly, to indicate the frequent incommensurability between the two languages. Too often workers’ language, the tone of delivery and the words themselves are ignored, deliberately misunderstood or relegated to a ‘too coarse’ category thereby not only imposing a demeaning judgement on people, but also a silence on important communication channels.
Sure you could find other terms. Sure you could use more refined language. You could simply say, ‘Phenomenology of Twitches’, but in the process you’d lose the heart of the message, and that would distort an important aspect that resides in the shadows of meanings between the referent of ‘phenomenology’ and that of ‘the twitching arsehole’, and yet both are deeply reliant on vivid personal experience. At work however, life and death could depend on learning to listen properly.
National OHS Co-Ordinator
Australian Workers’ Union