quotable quote: “The use of silly and meaningless safety language matters, it creates a distraction and delusion that safety and risk are being addressed. We may feel good about speaking such words but they dumb down culture and distract people from taking safety seriously”.
All Injuries are Preventable and Other Silly Safety Sayings
All injuries are preventable
Hindsight bias is a wonderful thing, it makes us all experts after the event. This saying “all injuries are preventable’ is silly because it ignores human fallibility and creates a climate for blame. Of course mistakes are understood after the event, this is why we call it hindsight bias. Hindsight bias creates a condition of superiority in the witness and a sense of inferiority in the victim. Such language is called a truism, it’s like saying ‘I was born from my parents’ or ‘I have a heart’. Then when an incident happens or an investigation is conducted, we start looking for what the person did wrong to not ‘prevent’ the event. Of course, we would have if we were in the same situation.
Safety is ‘common sense’
Speaking the language of ‘common sense’ creates the delusion that we all think the same and that those who make judgments we don’t understand are somehow either stupid or malicious. Making the assumption that others think and know what we know diminishes the need for listening and conversation. Then when we talk about others lacking ‘common sense’ we again elevate our superior position over others (because they lack ‘common sense’) thereby diminishing the value of empathy in work culture.
Be careful, carelessness can hurt you
The language of ‘carefulness’ misunderstands the nature of automaticity, heuristics and cognitive bias. We mostly function on autopilot developed over time through habit, repetition, cognitive overload and desensitization. It’s simply impossible to function with the complexity of everything without autopilot. Besides, our unconscious does a great job most of the time. We drive on autopilot, work on autopilot and walk around on autopilot, it’s how we cope with complexity. Again, stating a truism simply ‘be careful’ doesn’t create care. It would be much more effective to tell a person (or even better as an open question)‘ drive under the speed limit’ or ask something specific, than speak generalist language. It’s great people know you care about them but asking how they are going to drive home or driving them home or calling a taxi makes more sense.
Of course safety is not first, the fundamental drive of business is production. Companies that speak as if they are producers of safety and have a secondary product are going to go out of business. If safety is put first in a business it will become so costly in the endeavour to produce that the attempt to prevent minimal harm will be too costly. All safety interventions are a trade off for production for risk, not risk elimination over production.
Accept no performance level other than zero harm’ and ‘zero harm is achievable
This is the kind of language that creates a toxic environment. If zero harm is a performance level, and absolute perfection is the aspiration then, sackings must be hourly in your organisation. When organisations speak in absolute language yet in reality have selective and inequitable practice (because executives are only human), workers learn (through the hidden curriculum) that safety is ‘just spin’. This is the ‘double speak’ of executive vision statements and fundamentalist climates. Binary opposition language is wonderful for creating ‘black and white’ and intolerance. Will the perfect executive please stand up.
This is an arse-covering exercise
The problem with this language is that when one gets to court one learns all about the subjectivity and interpretation of the law. Paperwork will not cover your arse in court and this misunderstands the purpose of paperwork in the first place. Paperwork is intended to be a tool to make organisations think about risk and create a safe culture. When one gets to court all of a sudden ALARP and Due Diligence become selective and attributed. How much paperwork ‘demonstrates’ a safe workplace? How many low injury rate statistics ‘demonstrate’ a safe workplace? Since when did the absence of something demonstrate the presence of something else? When you get to court it’s the culture that matters. You can go for years like BP did at Horizon One without a single injury and mountains of paper yet maintain a culture of hubris and be found in court to be negligent.
The Danger of Talking Silly Safety Language
One of the important things we learn from the study of semiotics and semiology is that words have significance and are at the very foundation of culture. The research shows that words even shape our brain structure. Our brains wire according to cultural discourse, even the shapes of our mouths and tongue are affected by our language which is why we speak differently and have accents. We identify cultures through language, we hear accents and know that someone is not like us or has a different history/background. Similarly, the language we use denotes a view of the world of safety and how we seek humans and risk. If we see others as imperfect and ourselves as perfect we will have a big problem. If we think we can somehow control others, we will similarly have a big problem. We dehumanize others at our own peril.
I heard Malcolm Turnbull on TV today say to an interviewer ‘lets not argue semantics’ (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-27300133). This was Malcolm’s way of dismissing the use of the word ‘cruel’ rather, he wanted to use the word ‘harsh’. Of course Malcolm knows semantics (semiotics) matter, this is why he desires one word over another, this is why politicians are masters of ‘spin’. They spend days and countless meetings making sure they don’t use the word ‘tax’ but rather want the word ‘levy’, of course semantics matter. When someone uses this line of argument ‘let’s not argue semantics’ they are saying ‘of course semantics matter, I just want to dictate what words matter’.
The use of silly and meaningless safety language matters, it creates a distraction and delusion that safety and risk are being addressed. We may feel good about speaking such words but they dumb down culture and distract people from taking safety seriously. So once the words are said, we all know what club people are in, then we can just get on with the job, (’get the job done’, ‘she’ll be right’).