Beware the power of words

Occupational health and safety (OHS) professionals are being encouraged to think differently about safety and to focus on the positives instead of the failures, the leads instead of the lags. This needs to be supported by how we describe workplace incidents and in this context the profession can learn from one aspect of the debate on family violence in which Australia is currently engaged.

One example is available in this article from Women’s Agenda.  In it Editor Jane Gilmore writes about how the death of a women, murdered by a man, was described poorly by a newspaper.  The headline removes the perpetrator from the action.

“…. the article headline read:

Townsville police say selfie could have led to alleged stabbing murder

No. She wasn’t murdered by a selfie, she was murdered by a man who decided to stab her. She wasn’t murdered because she left her partner or started a new relationship, she was murdered because a man decided to stab her. It’s not relevant that a neighbour thought they were “happy together”, she was murdered because a man decided to stab her.”

When we write about workplace incidents be it for a blog, a safety alert or a corporate report it is important that we respect the victim and their relatives and their colleagues who may read our words.  This is over and above the review of a safety alert or report undertaken by the legal department and the communications professionals.

Gilmore identified how easy it is to include extraneous details in a report that can deflect the focus of the report. Writing, and speaking, carefully about workplace incidents can set the tone about how an investigation is conducted, how the grief over the loss of a worker is managed or how that event is perceived in years to come.


Part of the outrage in Gilmore’s article is that sloppy reporting indicates an entrenched ideology that downplays the significance of family violence incidents. Similar outrage is often heard by the relatives of workers who have died at work.

In many ways, gender is purposely removed from the reporting and investigation of many workplace incidents as it is not seen as relevant or is downplayed often because of the uncertainty and  inexperience of the investigators. Gender should always be considered as one of the many potential contributory factors in any incident as gender is a neutral concept and can apply equally to men as it does to women. Even though the concept of gender has been refined, some would say developed, by feminists, its relevance is to both sexes and the power relationships between people. More on gender and OHS is available HERE.

As OHS professionals and associations develop their communication strategies and engage with more and more people through social media and new technologies, language is gaining greater significance not less.  This need for care is not in the traditional, formal way of trying to avoid defamation and the legal costs and penalties associated with that.  We must consider the sociological context where our words generate or affect norms and values in ways we may not have intended.

Just as OHS professionals can cause offence, we can create positive safety and organisational cultures by our words and our deeds.

Kevin Jones

Categories death, domestic, ethics, gender, grief, media, OHS, safety, violence

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