SafetyAtWorkBlog has written previously that the term “safety” seems to have fallen out of favour with some preferring terms such as “zero harm”. In November 2012 I wrote:
“In some ways, “safety” has become an ineffective term, even a negative term in some areas. It is understandable that some companies and safety professionals would wish to rebrand their skills or activities as something else, like Zero Harm, but a more sustainable strategy would be to work on having Safety regain its credibility.”
“I don’t use the “safe” word anymore! The “s” word has such a poor reputation I find it can turn people away.
If people turn away from “safe” as a word this places great pressure on the safety strategies of OHS regulators and governments. Does the community believe that safety is different from what the regulators believe? I don’t think so and reckon that the success of the fundamental social values espoused through the various incarnations of WorkSafe Victoria’s Homecomings advertisement illustrates the common understanding of safety.
Dr Cattani, of Cattani Consulting, advocates occupational safety compliance through a process revolving around
- Leadership, and
These elements have always been core to occupational safety even though they may have been described in other ways.
Readers may see this article as a discussion on semantics but the words we choose reflect our understanding of those words and the ease of communicating those understandings. The fundamental element of safety remains the avoidance of harm. New terms require more explanation than existing terms even when those terms may be a little dated and require refreshing.
Safety and its Profession
Dr Cattani writes that
“It is ironic that the profession dedicated to the prevention of harm to our most valuable resource, our people, appears to have a credibility issue.”
That is not the fault of safety but of those who build a profession around safety, the media who misrepresents safety and those who exploit safety for other purposes.
Until fairly recently the mainstream press in the United Kingdom had a free hand in ridiculing occupational health and safety but the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) took up the fight and after several years developed a counter strategy. Its mythbusting campaign, under Chair Judith Hackett, seems to be highly effective. The HSE responds quickly to ludicrous media reports but understood that a common sense argument does not always counter misinformation and realised that investigation was more effective than a simple rebuttal from the safety regulator. HSE established a “Challenge Panel” that in one year has explained and countered almost 160 misunderstandings of occupational health and safety.
A typical example is case 157
“A children’s soft play centre has signs up “customers must not consume their own food or drink on the premises due to Health & Safety reasons”. However customers are allowed to consume hot drinks and cooked meals on the premises as long as they are purchased from their cafe.
There are no health and safety laws which would stand in the way of customers consuming their own food in circumstances as described. The panel all believe that this is a clear case of commercial motives being conveniently hidden behind the catch-all health and safety excuse.” (emphasis added)
The HSE’s initiative has been broadly supported by the OHS profession in England and elsewhere. It is fighting to regain ownership of “safety”. The Australian safety profession, including regulators, is yet to prepare a similar strategy even though the Australian press is following some of the techniques of the UK press on workplace safety reports.
The HSE’ Challenge Panel has shown the laziness of some businesses, people and councils who use OHS as a reason for not doing something they do not want to do. It has also shown that decisions may be reported or seen as relating to OHS laws but are really about public liability or food safety or other issue or business pressure unrelated to OHS laws.
The significance of this media’s misrepresentation is that it has fed into the political attacks on “red tape” both in the UK and Australia. Ridiculing OHS implies that safety management systems are designed to create unnecessary bureaucracy when the core element of safety management systems remains “to avoid harm’. Management systems can grow so large that the fundamental reason for their existence can be forgotten or buried.
This is a major reason why the term “safety” must not be devalued, replaced or corrupted. We are taught from a very early age to “take care”, “don’t hurt yourself”, “mind how you go’. Safety is instilled in all of us as a basic concept and value that we all understand and can all apply. The safety profession can build on this socialisation if it chooses.
“Safety” deserves to be supported, refreshed and re-explained to each new generation, rather than being side-stepped.