The Lexicon of Safety Gibberish

The Lexicon of Safety Gibberish

imageGibberish or gobbledygook refers to speech that is nonsensical. Gibberish often takes the form of unrecognisable sounds and noise that when defined don’t make sense. Even the most cursory glance at research on ‘framing’ and ‘priming’ of language (eg. Fairhurst, The Power of Framing or McNamara, Semantic Priming: Perspectives from Memory and Word Recognition) demonstrate that language matters. What we say and especially what we don’t say influences the thinking and discourse (power transfer) at work. Image Source

Newberg’s work (Words Can Change Your Brain) and that of many other neuropsychologists and neuro-marketers demonstrate that ‘sticks and stones may break your bones but words most damage me’. The destructive power of bullying and tragic cases of suicide (eg. ABC Net) from social media are evidence that ‘your words matter’. The cowardly work of serial pests, trolls and offensive crusaders on social media are often effective (The Guardian – Charlotte Dawson) and are usually excused as comical debate, free speech and ‘just kidding’. It will be interesting to see what the Federal Government’s changes to the Anti-Discrimination laws will do to an already vicious and anti-human social media. Andrew Keen’s work (The Cult of the Amateur and Digital Vertigo) ought to be compulsory reading for managers and organisations.

All language is value laden, it is not neutral or static, it has a trajectory, it takes us somewhere. If organisations want to influence culture change, the place to start is in discourse and language. This is why high on the list in the Lexicon of Safety Gibberish is the language of zero harm. The language of zero harm has a trajectory that is numerical and over time anti-human and punitive. Many organisations even punish their members for even questioning the sacred mantra (I receive letters daily from people who are either sacked or leave organisations simply because they question the logic of zero after they have been told to suppress reporting or are punished for reporting injuries). The language of zero harm primes a population for failure and accepts ‘double speak’ (say one thing and do another) and language gymnastics as normal, these are destructive characteristics for any safety culture.

Let’s look at some examples:

The first example is the Zero Harm Hospital. I wonder if they conduct chemotherapy there. I have discussed ( previously the nature of hormesis in medicine and how sometimes the best care we can offer is harmful. In the end we find that this idea is the figment of a single lack of imagination and is based on the now rejected ideas of Reason who himself has stepped away from the swiss cheese model of incident causation.

The second example comes from the UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt who wants the NHS to adopt the zero harm mantra and then in the same article states ‘A zero harm culture doesn’t mean that no harm ever happens’ (The Sunday Times). What? So why chose meaningless words that don’t mean what they say??? In another article Hunt requests the NHS establish a ‘zero harm culture of compassionate care’??? So how does intolerance drive compassion???. Another article acknowledges that the NHS system is rife with cover ups (ITV News). Other discourse on the same topic continues to engage in binary opposition logic (Binary Opposites) of ‘why should we tolerate one injury’ (Telegraph UK). How strange that we don’t take this absolutist and binary language into other areas of living??? The whole discourse is premised on an ideology of intolerance, I wonder how would this work in an organisation like Relationships Australia? or Beyond Blue The truth is, intolerance has no place in an any organisation if it is focused on learning, understanding and compassion. Since when did intolerance become a virtue? ( What’s the Issue with the language of Zero?)

The third example is from the Queensland membership guidelines for the Zero Harm at Work Leadership Program. Point 5 of the membership charter states: ‘We want to encourage a workplace culture that empowers people to report incidents, without fear of sanction, knowing that the incidents will be fully investigated and addressed’. All the evidence that is thrown at me daily from people in Queensland victimized in zero harm organisations is that reporting goes underground and that the new sport of ‘hiding harm’ flourishes. I recently was told a story by a safety advisor in a zero harm organisation (which he has since left) that required a 2 hour induction into how to use a vacuum cleaner!

The fourth example is of organisations who don’t use the language of zero harm and intolerance. Rather, these organisations use the language of commitment, learning, understanding and continuous improvement. Does this mean they want people injured? Of course not, but they aren’t trapped into the negative nonsense of binary opposition. Rather it is clear in both policy and aspiration that all these companies are fully committed to addressing risk and ensuring a safe workplace.


Sydney University

Victorian Department of Justice

NSW Department of Education and Communities

Wayside Chapel Kings Cross




The Model WHS Act

Maybe these and many more organisations know that the discourse of intolerance and the binary opposition trap of zero harm language creates a negative culture?

The next piece of language that needs to be relegated to the Lexicon of Safety Gibberish is the nonsense of ‘common sense’. The idea that there is an objective common and understood sense of agreed logic about safety is crazy. Indeed, the assumption that such a form of knowledge exists inhibits education and learning about risk. We hear it often that people request that people exercise ‘common sense’, well if your have to request it, it is neither common nor shared. A good example of this is providing common sense tips for safety (Workplace Safety Experts). So why do we need tips for something we all share in common? Why have inductions if people have common sense?

Another phrase that out to be relegated to the Lexicon of Safety Gibberish is ‘all accidents are preventable’. We see this language in some organisations (Nesteoil) validating the illogical notion that humans can know the future. The abuse of hindsight bias is the problem here. Just listen to the binary logic of this presentation (youTube). No mention of the importance of cultivating imagination, bricolage (Weick) or creativity but, once an organisation commits to gibberish, it must undertake language gymnastics to sustain it.

The reality is, we simply don’t need gibberish language in safety discourse. Just because we don’t speak about something doesn’t mean we endorse its opposite? If I don’t support the war on terrorism, does that make me a terrorist? If I make no comment of the Royal Commission into child abuse, does that make me a child abuser. Of course not, arguments from silence simply don’t make sense and are based on a binary opposition logic that seeks entrapment. It seeks to answer its own assumption and can’t understand any ‘in-between’.

So what other gibberish can you think of that get’s cycled about organisations that inhibit think critically in risk and safety? Perhaps you have some more words and language that needs to be relegated to the Lexicon of Safety Gibberish.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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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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