It’s Only Words and Words are all I Have

It’s Only Words and Words are all I Have

Guest Article by Dr Robert Long – I highly recommend his new book: For The Love of Zero

This is the start of the last line to the famous number one hit ‘Words’ by the Bee Gees, but the line has an important message (another Bee Gees song) for safety people. I have read recently on many discussion groups the comment that semantics in safety is not important. This often happens when people seek to dismiss the importance of framing and priming regarding the psychology of goals. For example, in a recent debate on Linkedin a contributor stated: ‘This a matter of semantics. In any case-why use a dictionary definition of accident???? How is it relevant in OHS today?’. In the last blog I quoted Ghandi, who more than anyone knew the power of words over many other forms of power. It would bode safety people well to take Ghandi’s words seriously and study a little semantics or semiology (the structure and meaning of language). I think in the world of safety we tend to underestimate the importance of our conversations.

It is difficult to believe that safety people would be so dismissive of words when the legislation and regulation of safety is so clearly defined. When it comes to legislation and regulation every pronoun and its position in the text is critical in a courtroom. It makes a big difference to use words like ‘tolerable risk’ or ‘as low as reasonably practicable’ compared to nonsense words like ‘all accidents are preventable’. Omniscience (the attribute of knowing all that will be) is an attribute of the gods, not fallible humans. Humans need to find words that are meaningful and motivational rather than words that alienate and disengage people from safety.

The Work Health and Safety Act doesn’t speak in absolutes or perfectionisms. The Act like the standard AS/ANZ 31000 ISO Risk Management – Principles and Guidelines, defines risk as ‘the effect of uncertainty on objectives’. This is why perfectionist language and discourse is out of step with the Act. The world of humans, risk and learning is an uncertain world. Whilst we might try all we like, there is no way all accidents can be prevented, one might as well say ‘all humans are preventable’. The fact is, one must risk to live, one must risk to learn and one must get out of bed in the morning and live life. The quest for absolute risk aversion is anti-learning, anti-living and anti-human.

So we need to find words that connect with human fallibility. We need to use words that inspire and motivate people to safety and don’t create such a conundrum of tortured logic. This is most apparent in the way we seek to set goals and what our goal setting does psychologically to humans. What is the point of setting goals that have by-products that are more psychologically damaging than the goal itself? What is the point of setting a goal whose by-product manufactures skepticism and cynicism? In 2013 results from the MiProfile survey (with a database of over 16,000 workers) confirmed that 65% of all workers neither find the goal or words of ‘zero harm’ meaningful or motivational.

When managers maintain a discourse of meaningless words to workers, this simply drives disconnectedness. What is the value of preaching words to a workforce than don’t believe in the language being preached? So what words in safety might be most helpful?

Some organisations use language such as ‘safety matters’, ‘safety leadership’, ‘don’t walk past’, ‘safety journey’, ‘safety first’ or ‘hear, listen and think before you act’. Whatever the words used, they need to connect and inspire others to believe in safety and also manage the importance of learning in risk and, the reality of human fallibility.

For more on the psychology of goals it is worth reading: Moskowitz, G., and Grant, H., (eds.) (2009) The Psychology of Goals .The Guilford Press, New York.

Author’s Resource Box

Dr Robert Long

PhD., (UWS) BEd., (USA) BTh., (SCD) MEd., (Syd) MOH (La Trobe), Dip T., Dip Min., MACE, CFSIA.

Executive Director – Human Dymensions Pty Ltd

Rob has a creative career in teaching, education, community services, government and management.

Rob is engaged by organisations because of his expertise in culture, learning, risk and social psychology. He is a skilled presenter and designer of learning events, training and curriculum.

Web Link:

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

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