“Safety” deserves to be supported not replaced or rephrased

worksafe-0125_lr-2SafetyAtWorkBlog 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 was reminded of this when reading an article in the latest edition (71) of Industry Update, a safety equipment publication that publishes many advertorials.  Dr Marcus Cattani wrote:

“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.

worksafe-0306_lr-2Dr Cattani, of Cattani Consulting, advocates occupational safety compliance through a process revolving around

  • Systems,
  • Leadership, and
  • People.

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.

Panel decision

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.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia
Categories campaign, OHS, politics, safety, safety culture, Uncategorized, zero harm

9 thoughts on ““Safety” deserves to be supported not replaced or rephrased”

  1. This is an interesting thread and I would like to add some comments to it, and hopefully to continue this important discussion.

    There are several comments in the thread which show that some agree we need to do something about improving the community perception of the safety profession, to improve professionalism and the way we communicate to the community, notably the quote from Kevin from Nov 2012 citing that others in the UK have confirmed the credibility issue and done something about it.

    But it’s not just them or me. There are quite a few others who have gone to print saying similar things:
    “OHS leaders are often seen as an obstacle to quality, productivity and cost, rather than as a business partner in these outcomes at an executive level…” From the SIA newsletter which is a body of Safety Professionals (14.05.2013)

    “safety professionals who remain rooted in their past successes and approaches may find themselves become less and less relevant” from a reprint of the Occupational Health and Safety Newsletter 2008 found on the BST web site.

    But, the doubters may say that with the power of Google we can find anything to support anything, and that these authors have an ulterior motive?

    A couple of years ago the national body for Australian safety, SafeWork Australia conducted a series of consultation workshops to help them devise the ten year safety improvement strategy. They decided a series of targets for the next 10 years, and then developed strategies to address them. One of the topics discussed was to have:
    “High quality professional work health and safety qualifications that are nationally accredited, recognised, actively involved in industry and regularly refreshed…”

    One of the SafeWork Australia 10 year strategies is:
    “Work with stakeholders through a range of mechanisms to deliver a consistent national message on the importance of work health and safety.”

    Even if we still disagree that there is a problem, can we agree that initiatives from the Strategy will improve the current situation, maybe in a similar manner to the UK initiative?

    I know there is tremendous community support for the outcomes we are all striving for. So let’s have a discussion about how we are going to be involved in the developing the profession and the public perception of us. The National Strategy needs us!

    Finally, there are some excellent resources out there which do suggest some standardised ways of working: SafetyLine (http://www.safetyline.wa.gov.au/index.html) and the Safety Body of Knowledge (http://www.safetybok.org/) assist professionals provide good quality advice. My simple three sided triangle model acts as a communication tool for us to use to tell our people about how to create an effective organisation, without having to go through 100’s of slides and pages. And it’s described for free on my website http://www.journeyprogram.com.au

    PS I found some lexicons if you need one too: (http://www.ogp.org.uk/pubs/244.pdf, http://www.iapa.ca/pdf/iapa_glossary.pdf, http://safety.blr.com/workplace-safety-news/safety-administration/safety-general/Safety-101-Glossary-of-Workplace-Safety-Terms-1163-116343/)

  2. Rightly said Keith. Brand name like safety has suffered great damage and requires steps to be repaired. But I really wonder what kind of measures can be taken to repair this brand name. Can you suggest me some steps if you know them?

  3. The word \”SAFETY\” has different values to a Global Workforce. Imagine a Horse race- 15 horses with different odds. You will have a favorite, conversely a long shot. Strangely enough buy the time the gates break open, there will be money placed on every horse in the race.
    The work force are broadly considered , in one hand, the Thoroughbreds, in the stalls ready to race (work) and the PCBU are the Bookies. The Bookie may take a loss from time to time, however, the Bookie is always making money.
    I believe the term \”SAFETY\” still resonates loudly across the Global and Local Workforces.
    Something must be done to educate the so called \”MUG PUNTERS\”

  4. As always Kevin, infinitely wise in your words! How easy it is for people to wheel out the \”Elf & Safety\” card when they want you to do or not do something. My latest personal event being my neighbour who wanted a new fence because it was a \”safety risk\”. What he actually meant was \”I want a new fence because the existing one does not look as good as a new one and has a bend in it which I want removed\”. However, it was far easier to say \”safety risk\” in the hope that it would create a panic that someone would be injured or worse still killed by an ugly fence.

    People are all too quick to use the term \”safety\” whenever it suits, but not so quick to act in a safe and responsible manner when required to do so themselves, like keeping to the speed limit or dare I say reducing their speed below the limit in the wet, whilst driving.

    So is safety a brand, not really per se, but more a means (a catalyst perhaps) to achieve better outcomes for everyone involved BUT it does require all three elements Leadership, People and Systems to be aligned to have a positive outcome, as stated by Dr Marcu Cattani above.

    The most important of the three elements is by far Leadership and it is the leaders of any organisation that set the tone of \”what is and just as importantly is not, acceptable around here\”. Only with good, positive and consistent leadership, where leaders are believed by their teams does safety become a good thing and therefore result in a positive safety culture within an organisation.

    The crux is \”believable and credible\” – just because it says in the leaders handbook that safety is number one, the test comes when production, profit or program are adversely affected by doing the right thing in terms of keeping people safe. This is the test of a truly committed and believable leader.

    Interestingly, the most successful organisations will always do the right thing and no-one generally remembers the times when the production, profit or program were impacted, but everyone will remember the time the leader stopped the job for safety.

    Safety and safety professionals are engaged in a guerrilla war against loss to an organisation, one which will never be won – like all such wars in history. The best that can be hoped for is to reduce the losses to a minimum and seek to determine what changes in policies, processes and tactics are needed when a loss eventuates.

  5. Safety is a brand name not unlike any other \”Brand Name\”in commerce, and like any other brand name it can be damaged. I believe it has been damaged by events like the one\’s you provide in your article. as safety professionals we need to take steps to repair the \”brand Name\” of Safety!

  6. Shift the deck chairs and open up another range of bureaucratic agencies that will make a lot of noise, have more award evenings,consume forests of paper and all aimed at big noting and satisfying egos of those that have neither the intellect or capacity to change a thing. Pretty much what has been happening for the last two decades.

    One wonders why business doesn\’t give a toss when all they see is self serving rhetoric and no direction that they can follow that is cost neutral or possibly profitable.

  7. Speaking of perpetuated myths, on a trip to Tassie last year I found that it was widely reported and widely believed by workers in the building industry that the new WHS Act would prohibit them from wearing shorts or taking their dogs to work (among various other forms of \”bureaucracy gone mad\”), and would be so expensive to comply with that they would go out of business.

  8. I applaud your article Kevin.
    I have been concerned for some time with the direction that certain writers in the field of workplace safety have been seeking to \’rephrase\’ common \’safety\’ words and language due to this problem of \’safety\’ being devalued by those with ulterior motives.
    One of the significant issues I have is the willingness of those authors to replace what they consider to be poorly understood or defined \’jargon\’ words with other words and phrases that are even more open to confusion.
    One such example is the drive by at least one prolific blogger to replace the term \’accident\’ with the phrase \’personal damage incident\’.
    His claim is that \’accident\’ is an emotive word that has negative connotations that lead to \’blame\’ rather than prevention. Well how is ‘personal damage incident’ less emotive or less likely to lead to blame?
    The fact is, something happened and someone was hurt or killed. What does it matter what we call it as long as we agree on the term?
    As I understand it, and it is certainly my aim, safety is about preventing those incidents or, if the incident is not preventable, mitigating the degree of ‘damage’ consequences.
    And why shouldn’t the term ‘accident’ be emotive? Someone got hurt or killed and they and others are affected in their life, or quality of life, in the aftermath. Why shouldn’t we get emotional about that?
    Let’s hook into that and use those emotions to motivate a desire to change and prevent it, or similar ‘its’ happening it again.
    This not unlike Dr Cattani’s move to replace the simple term ‘safety’ with something more complex that is still open to misinterpretation and misuse.
    I expect that it’s common for words and meanings to be hi-jacked by people who wish to manipulate others. Consider the words ‘gay’, \’cool\’, ‘sick’ as examples of words that have been hi-jacked to mean something other than their original meaning.
    We would be much better served, in my opinion, to develop a ‘Safety lexicon’ that specifically defines terms with a common meaning that we need to use consistently. And then fight to maintain those definitions in all that we do as safety professionals.
    In many ways I think this would be of more (or at least of equal) value than the development of a ‘safety body of knowledge’.

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