Three Cheers for the Safety Literalists

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So, when it comes to the law and understanding regulation, words do have meaning, that’s why the word ‘zero’ appears nowhere in legislation, regulation and standards in safety. Somehow safety people seem to think that adding absolutes to the law somehow improves things? However, safety people and organisations will be held accountable to those words they use should anything go pear-shaped.

Three Cheers for the Safety Literalists

Depositphotos_8171991_s-2015In a recent exchange with a Safety person on Linkedin I was accused of being a ‘literalist’, as if this was some kind of an insult. The same person used the word ‘academic’ as a term of offence, and the usual tirade of slander that surfaces on social media that demonstrates fear of thinking and dialogue. Of course, this came about because the sacred cow of zero was being challenged. It always seems to end up at some crazy point where we find out that words don’t have meaning and you can make words mean whatever you want. Apparently zero doesn’t mean zero.

One of the interesting topics of discussion in our next book (due out in June) Risky Conversations, The Law, Social Psychology and Risk is the way the court understands the use of words and language. Here is a selection of that discussion from the book (p.51ff).

Greg: And as an example there’s an unfair dismissal case called Boal and BHP. Mr Boal was sacked for using a mobile phone on a mine site, he was in apparent breach of relevant policies and procedures. Mr Boal was successful in his unfair dismissal case and was ultimately reinstated. There were criticisms by the tribunal of the way that BHP had trained organisations in this procedure, about the level of clarity, about whether Mr Boal was actually breaching it, or not. It’s a quite a long case, with a lot of detail in it. But the thing that really stood out for me when you read a case like that, is that the court ultimately said the way that BHP had communicated, trained, implemented and supervised this procedure, wasn’t consistent with their zero tolerance approach.

So they publically had come to the tribunal and said you know, Commissioner we have a zero tolerance approach to these breaches and basically the court was turning around and saying ‘well if your attitude is zero tolerance, then what you do before that point better look the same’.

If it’s zero tolerance and it’s that important that you have a zero tolerance approach then your training, and your communication, and your supervision and everything else that goes along with it ought to be as significant and as important as the words that you attach to this idea.

The other thing is that you damn well better make sure, that if it is zero tolerance, it’s zero tolerance for everybody and you don’t get to be selective about who you apply zero tolerance to. So if we’re going to use words like ‘zero’ and ‘zero tolerance’ and take these very hard line positions in relations to safety, ultimately the court will hold them accountable, against those words.

A similar example comes out of the Montara Commission of Inquiry. So Montara was a drilling rig disaster off the coast of Western Australia, there was no lives lost but it was uncontrolled release of hydrocarbons for several weeks. And, there was a major public inquiry, a quasi Royal Commission and several weeks of hearing here in Canberra.

One of the issues that arose was that an Executive Manager for one of the organisations was on the facility at the time of the disaster. A safety device had been removed by some contractors and he did not direct them to reinstall it. He was aware of it but didn’t direct them to reinstall it. He was called as a witness in the proceedings and was under cross examination for about three days, giving evidence. And at one point he was asked a question about his decision not to direct these contractors to reinstall. But the way that it played out was really interesting. Council assisting the inquiry had gotten hold of a slide pack. It was a presentation pack that was given to Supervisors on that facility. This executive manager was aware of the content of that training, he thought he may have given that training sometimes himself. He was aware of the content and may have even had something to do with putting it together. One of the slides actually said, words to the effect that ‘the highest standard we set is the lowest standard we expect’ or it might have been the other way round. One of those motherhood statements that you see espoused in risk and safety spin.

Rob: I think it’s: ‘the standard you walk by is the standard you accept’.

Greg: Yes, that sort of thing Rob. And what council assisting asked of this fellow was, well sir this was the language your organisation used? In light of this language, in light of your expectations, would you now agree sir, that your failure to give that direction was a failure of leadership on your part? And, he had to admit it.

So he was essentially being tried against their own standard the organisation had set for itself, that he was aware of and he had to admit in a public inquiry that he had failed as a leader based on his own terminology, or his company’s own terminology.

And I don’t think organisations actually, really pay enough attention, or have enough understanding, that when we are putting these slogans into our organisation, this ‘safety comes first’, ‘safety is our first priority’ and all the stuff that we see and hear, that is a standard that they can be held accountable against, in a court of law.

And Rob, you and I have talked about this beyond just a legal accountability. This language has effect on people doesn’t it?

Rob: Yes, I find it interesting in the risk industry there is really no training at all in effective communication at that level. The level of semiotics (the study of signs, symbols and significance) and semiosis (the meaning of signs, text and symbols).

We might give introductory stuff but the truth of the fact is, the industry (and we’ll come to training later) focuses entirely on this regulatory stuff, not on how it’s communicated. One of the things that gets me about the first case and it will get me on to zero so I will try not to be too long on this. I don’t think the industry is sophisticated at all in understanding language the power behind language.

There are two things we should note about words. First of all words in language have a superficial level. But more importantly, language itself has both a symbolic and embedded meaning that affects the unconscious. All language has a trajectory it takes you somewhere.

We know from experience in effective parenting that you don’t call your child, ‘loser’. We know that if you give your children encouragement that it is effective for the upbringing of children. I don’t think the risk and safety industry looks carefully enough at the language it’s using and then wondering about the outcome it gets. So for example, if you keep using zero, it has a trajectory, it’s not neutral language, there’s no language that’s neutral. And I don’t care whether you declare it as a goal or an aspirational goal, it has a psychological effect.

And so, just as we would be very concerned about inappropriate language in a setting like this, or a family setting, there seems no consideration, or thought for the legal or psychological outcome of that language used at work. So rather than getting caught too much on that I can maybe leave that and throw back to you Greg, but I get deeply concerned about this disconnect between spin and reality.

But to quickly to jump to the positive side of this. It’s very, very easy for a leader to have a simple audit of the language they use in their organisation. I was at a mine site the other day where a leader had asked me to come in and help him. The very first thing I asked him was: ‘can I listen to the way you run your meetings?’ He ran a meeting for an hour, which includes a discussion about several events, where there were near misses and at no time did he ask the question ‘what have we learned from this’ in fact the word learning was not in their discourse. No one asked questions about learning yet there were many, many words used about punishment, many, many things, what will we do, but not about what have we learned.

I said to him ‘well here’s my first audit point. Change your language, start talking about learning and you’ll be surprised what will follow’. And fortunately it wasn’t a zero company, with the absolute rule of intolerance, so they’ve got a good chance of reform.

So, when it comes to the law and understanding regulation, words do have meaning, that’s why the word ‘zero’ appears nowhere in legislation, regulation and standards in safety. Somehow safety people seem to think that adding absolutes to the law somehow improves things? However, safety people and organisations will be held accountable to those words they use should anything go pear-shaped.

So, three cheers for the safety literalists I say. Let’s speak language that is meaningful and sense-able.


Note: For those who have been asking: The next book Risky Conversations, The Law, Social Psychology and Risk is a transcript of 3 days of conversations between Greg Smith, Craig Ashhurst and Rob Long. The book will be published with access to videos and talking book. The Field Guide to Risk is still in the pipeline and is due out in November.

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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