SAFETY – What is Safety? The World’s Hardest Question? What does Safety mean to you?


SAFETY = A temporary moment when physical harm is low?

If SAFETY is just “zero harm” then LOVE is just “zero hate”?

You might also like: WHAT IS A SAFETY RESET? and Risk vs Hazard vs Safety

Download the “What is Safety” Backronym Poster here: Safety-Backronym-Poster.pdf (20 downloads)

See also: What ISN’T Safety

Alan Quilley recent published this article on his blog: What is YOUR definition of SAFE?. He says:

Many of us, myself included, use the word SAFE (and unsafe) in our writings and discussions. If you work in the Safety Management field, it is likely even in your job title.

What I find amusing and sometimes disturbing is that when challenged about their definition of the word “SAFE” people in the Safety Profession often stumble and stutter when it comes to providing THEIR definition.

Alan’s article prompted me to resurrect this article which did generate some interesting discussion a while back……..

Someone asked me the other day: “What is Safety”? Damn good question…….They say it is critical for most people in deciding where they go, what they buy and what they do, consciously or unconsciously. Until a couple of years ago I never really thought much about it, I thought I was just doing it. Is it just “it is what it is”? If you can this question quickly and succinctly then I guess you really haven’t thought much about it either! It is bound to be a different thing for different people – Its a bit like asking “what is Love”?

If you are a Safety Manager then what are you managing if it cant be properly measured, understood or defined? Are you managing things (hazards), statistics, systems, compliance, behaviours, feelings, failures, thoughts or perceptions? Is that Safety? If you are a Zero Harm Manager – do you manage nothing?

This article by Dr Rob Long provides some of the answers: Safety should not be about Safety, Rob says:

I often get called into organisations under some concern about safety, many see my work as something about ‘behaviors’ but that is not what I am on about. Some think my writing is about safety but its not, and some want me to give ‘fixit’ type stories and illustrations on how to improve safety at work, but I don’t. Can I just say this, if your world is just about safety, then your world is too small.

When I come in to organisations I often start with a range of consultations, ‘walk-arounds’, observations and preliminary training, then deliver some services or maybe a program and it doesn’t take long before someone will come up to me and say: ‘Rob, this is not just about safety is it?’ and when that happens I know we are starting to get somewhere.

Safety shouldn’t be about safety, it should be about living and learning. When safety is made into some bureaucratic, legal or club exercise, it has lost the plot. This is why I prefer to talk much more about risk than I do about safety. The moment you tell someone you are into safety they think you are either the fun police or some legal nerd who loves checklists. If safety is some engineering exercise of shifting objects to keep some system clean, then I think we have lost the plot. If safety is about trying to memorize sections of the Act so that we can dominate and rule others, then we have lost the plot. If safety is a power trip so that we can bully others to ‘keep them safe for their own good’, then we have lost the plot. Safety should be about none of these things. When we put learning first, people first, relationships first, respect first and living first, then we might get to the heart of safety.

Helen Keller once said something like:

“Safety is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature,  nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.

Someone once said to me:

“Safety is something that happens between your ears, not something you hold in your hands.”

  • Is safety something you do or part of what you do – drive safely, what does that mean?
  • Is Safe something that you be – I promise to be safe – that will sound good but what does it really mean?
  • Is safety something you take – Take safety precautions, take safety seriously?
  • Is safety something you ensure – Ensure the health and safety of others, how do you do that, how can you guarantee it?
  • Is Safety a place you go to – The children were taken to safety, is it really safe?
  • Is Safety a more short-term or external physical thing as opposed to Health?
  • Is Safety a real thing or do you just feel it – It looks safe, or does it feel safe?
  • Is Safety something you think or actually are – I’m worried about my safety but am I really safe here?
  • Is Safety something that just exists when you aren’t in danger – The workplace is safe because it is hazard free?
  • Are Safety and Danger things that are mutually exclusive or is protection from danger called risk management – I have protection so it will be safe?
  • Is it something that is always 100% guaranteed as some Zero Harm proponents would believe?
  • What about when something is called “the safest” or “the safest way” – is that a perception, has worked before or based on fact and data or just luck?
  • Is Safety First, the No1 Priority or should it be just part of everything we do? The hourly workers know the truth about that!
  • Is Zero Harm the new or better term for Safety? I hope not!

Now I’m totally confused!!!!!!!

In researching this topic I came across a website devoted to the question: www.whatissafety.com/. This is a website for travellers and asks the questions “what is safety for air travellers” and “what is safety for hiker”. They mention that “safe” and “safety” are in the top 2000 words in the English language?? Not much of use there

Let’s look at the definitions of Safety, official or otherwise:

Oxford Dictionary: 

Definition of safety: noun (plural safeties)

1 [mass noun] the condition of being protected from or unlikely to cause danger, risk, or injury: they should leave for their own safety,  the survivors were airlifted to safety

2 [as modifier] denoting something designed to prevent injury or damage: a safety barrier a safety helmet

3 [count noun] North American short for safety catch.

Or, for a simplistic definition from www.Ask.com

“Safety means keeping yourself and others free from harm or danger. It means taking care not to fall or bump or run into things. It also means to avoid accidents by being careful with what you are doing.”

Of course any word so popular and powerful is going to be abused and Rob Long explains in his recent article “Safety Justifies Anything and Everything” He says:

Isn’t it strange how the quest for safety is used to justify all range of unethical practice. As long as we put the intention and words of safety in front of some practice or some idea, we are somehow allowed to bully, intimidate, manipulate, overpower and say anything offensive, as long as we speak the sacred unchallenged words of safety.

Therefore Safety Is

As Gab Carlton wrote in Safety Solutions Wont Move a Hippo:

We need to understand that risk and safety is a wicked problem. In other words it’s complex and one that cannot be ‘fixed’ by simple, silver bullet solutions. Risk and safety is complex because we are dealing with humans. Humans, by design, are very complex and are averse to being told what to do. We are not motivated by this. We are not motivated by bullies who just want us to comply, like the lion. We are not motivated by pushing or shoving or bouncing for that matter. If we want to understand how people are motivated firstly we need to understand the psychology of goals, we need to understand human beings.

• Safety as a concept resists and attempt at a simple definition and is in turn inherently complex;

• There is a need to focus on the role of people within the workplace and their inherent resiliance, bias, rationalities, flexibility and fallibility; and

• We must look way beyond systems and compliance.

• Safety can be seen as something that comes out of the organisation that allows it to achieve its objectives (even in a high risk environment). In this way, safety is not something that is done to the organisation, but comes out of it.

So what is your definition of Safe or Safety? (please read some of the articles linked to in this post before you answer as they may change your thinking)


Below is an extract from an interesting article by Jenny Krasny first published here:

Curious now, I set out to ask some of my colleagues the question of ‘safety’ – what it means to them…and here are some of their answers:

1. “To be free from risk of physical harm” – a site supervisor,

2. “Something that protects you – a barrier – from harm” – a tradesman,

3. “A sense that nothing (or no one) will intentionally hurt me” – a customer service consultant,

4. “Somewhere I can go to let down my guard” – a senior manager,

5. “It’s about people – looking after each other, keeping an eye out for my mates” – an underground mine worker.

Even with my small sample, ‘safety’ was reported to be a feeling, a physical object or place, and an action. For some other people, ‘safety’ referred to something personal, individuals and intimate – a felt experience -, while for others, the word extended to include the environment – animate or inanimate – in which people lived or worked. If a handful of ‘safety’ definitions can exist right under my nose, I am fascinated to discover how else ‘safety’ is conceptualised, perceived and experienced. It certainly has me wondering about the implications that this has on ‘safety initiatives’ that are taking place in organisations around the globe. Is there a shared understanding of what the concept means and how it is played out across various levels in a business? Is this concept reinforced or sabotaged by the systems, structures and procedures that are in place?

As I don my researcher’s hat, I’m keen to understand the depth and breadth of what ‘safety’ means for people, and invite you to leave a comment as to what the word means to you.

Understanding that each thinks of safety differently becomes vitally important when we try to create a culture of safety excellence. It demonstrates the importance of involving every person in the organisation – from the ground up – in the conversation. We need to shift our mindsets from only accepting top-down safety communication to supporting bottom-up ownership of it. Let’s combine these different employee perceptions of safety and in supporting each of them, we will be another big step closer to safety excellence.

What does safety mean to you?

Why Safety Is Important to Me

safety Been lots of heated discussions and chest beating and on this site and Safety Forums lately which is really healthy but I thought that, just for a moment, we should all step back, take a deep breath, let the dust settle and take a moment to reconsider what safety is really all about. One of our counterparts – Sarah-Jane, The Safety Nerd, from Riskology Consulting sent me this video yesterday. It is so simple and raw yet sends a very powerful message. Made me remember how and why I got into this game. Please take a moment to watch and enjoy this short video and share it with anyone who you think may need a good dose of compassion and empathy.


Barry Spud

Barry Spud

Safety Crusader, Zero Harm Zealot, Compliance Controller and Global Pandemic Expert at Everything Safety
Barry Spud
What is a Safety Spud? Lets look at a few more spud head activities in risk and safety: 1. Coming on to site saying there is a safety issue when in fact there’s no such thing, it’s a political issue. 2. ‘Falling apart’ when people make choices that we think are stupid because they won’t do as we ‘tell’ them. Then we put on the angry face and think that overpowering others creates ownership. 3. Putting on the zero harm face, presenting statistics, knowing it has nothing to do with culture, risk or safety. 4. Putting on the superman (hazardman) suit and pretending to be the saviour of everything, this is good spud head cynic stuff. 5. Thinking that everyone else is a spud head except me. 6. Thinking there’s such a thing as ‘common’ sense and using such mythology to blame and label others. 7. Accepting safety policies and processes that dehumanize others. 8. Blaming, ego-seeking, grandstanding and territory protecting behind the mask of safety. 9. Thinking that risk and safety is simple when in fact it is a wicked problem. Denying complexity and putting your spud head in the sand. 10. Continually repeating the nonsense language and discourse of risk aversion that misdirect people about risk, safety, learning and imagination.

16 Replies to “WHAT IS SAFETY, REALLY?”

  1. After contacting the person who created this video, she shared this link which I’m sharing so others can enjoy it too!

  2. Unfortunately, Safety is infused with simplistic binary and emotive justifications for self existence that have very little to do with safety. The industry of safety has become a political ideology that rejects questioning and has globally attached itself to zero, no way back now.

      1. Most of the industry still doesn’t know Safety is an archetype that is, it takes on a life of its own. Similarly, the language and symbols it uses become and end in themselves, particularly under this fixation with owning the word ‘professional’. Safety is not number 1 and never can be, to speak like this disconnects from living and comodifies the industry. This doesn’t diminish the suffering of others but the industry talks about safety as if it is an enduring ‘right’ and something one possesses. Similarly this fixation with heroes, salvation and zero is really incredibly cultic.

  3. I’ve been a safety professional for nearly 30 years. Professional (Rob Long) meaning my level of training and expertise on the subject has afforded me the opportunity to be employed in the field of safety and be paid for my services. And, in all that time and training, I still struggle with the concept and definition of safety. I work in construction and in trying to develop a training for our workers on the subject so they can fully grasp the concepts and realities of what safety is, I find myself struggling with something I have devoted most of my career to. WHAT THE HELL IS SAFETY? The definitions in the dictionary are simple enough, but when you really sit down and give it thought in the establishment of the prevention of injury, it can make your brain hurt. Why is safety so hard to achieve? can it be achieved? is safety tangible? Can “safety” really be measured? Is safety conceptual and if so, can the concept be moved to a set of plans to be implemented and eventually to a final product called safety? Is safety relative, a condition or state? is safe really observable? We use the word so freely and flippantly sometimes, but fail to fully understand what it means. We humans are complicated beings and in trying to make a workplace safe we sometimes fail to remember that humans have a lot of different motivating factors that cause us to make decisions that derail everything we put together to make the conditions safe. I am in full agreement that safety can never be #1. In construction we have a slew of competing factors such as schedule, budget, quality, production, equipment, subcontractors and the list goes on. Why should safety be in competition with all these factors? Can’t safety be integrated into each one? I believe it can. We humans, as adults, are said to make about 35,000 decisions a day. I believe each decision is made at some level with an element of risk involved in it in order to make the decision. Some decisions are subconsciously automatic and others we think and stress over for days, weeks, and even months before making the decision. Is risk a component of safety or safety a component of risk, or……….. Arggghhhh my head hurts and all I want to do is prevent injuries at work. (and away from work) 🙂 BTW, I love Sarah Janes passion and video above. It connects at the emotional level, but is that enough for everyone? I think some can connect with that and others will discount it. I personally can connect with it because I too can relate to emotion. But others relate to very different motivating factors. Just one more reason the word safety can be so complicated.

    1. I hear and feel your pain Lance. Perhaps the best thing we could do is use the word “safety” as little as possible (since is has no or mant meanings) – we could talk of risk but what if we just spoke of and thouight about doing a job as best we can (this encompasses everything). I can’t think of the last time I spoke about safety at home but of course I would never like to see my family harmed

      1. Thanks for your questions Lance, they are indeed indicative of what this industry has become.

        This preoccupation with safety is such a huge problem now and made worse by ‘safety nerds’, ‘safety geeks’ and endless crusaders who have made a mindset of risk aversion normal.

        Safety can only ever be a temporary outcome as part of living life.

        If you a a vulnerable fallible human, you will suffer and be harmed, you will learn about pain and loss, you will learn about love and care, you will learn that life is short and social. Any other message or preoccupation with not being harmed is nonsense.The more the industry speaks nonsense to people, the less it can act professionally or ethically.

        AS much as I might want people not to be injured< I know that such remains nothing more than a wish. All of life and living is designed to not make that possible. If you live life you will be injured, whether it is visible or not.

  4. I can vividly recall a semi-articulate project safety manager with a tier one contractor and an obsequious illiterate safety advisor at one major coal seam gas project discussing how they avoided paying tax on their income and assets.

    Both of the malaperts were extreme advocates of behaviour based safety, which typically reflects more about the observer than those being scrutinised.

  5. Safety is just that, Safety. It varies industry to industry, job to job, person to person, day by day. There is no perfect definition of Safety. Safety is a living breathing thing because it revolves around humans. What worked best to be safe one day may not work the next day. With so many factors the best safety one can have is just knowledge and the ability to learn that you need to adapt everyday, every step, and every breath. Safety has a different meaning to each person which is affect by many factors.

    I would say defining safety is like trying to define “common sense”. Once you find the answer it changes.

  6. Safety is certainly not about mandatory blood tests, especially by an French Canadian organisation recently involved in a major corruption scandal:



    Fluor Corporation was rewarded with a major CSG project via Santos despite the performance of its Massey Energy subsidiary and its egregious CEO Don Blankenship, who was jailed following the deaths of almost 30 miners in Upper Big Branch Mining disaster back in 2010.

    Cape PLC were also awarded several major coal seam gas contracts across Australia despite killing many of its workforce, nearby residents and schoolchildren from asbestosis or mesothelioma, which resulted from its Barking operations in East London:


    Then start digging on Halliburton and Bechtel and the sinister activities of hatchet faced socially autistic martinets such as Dick Cheney or George Shultz.

    Who within our state and federal governments is responsible for doing any due diligence on these organisations before major contracts are awarded?

    Simone Marsh rattled a few sabres regarding superficial environmental approvals during her tenure with the Queensland state government but has since moved to Tasmania



    Meanwhile cohorts of neurotic Tonton Macoutes armed with digital cameras and behavioural based safety checklists are patrolling projects looking for grammatical errors or solecisms in safe work method statements.

  7. I find it fascinating how the industry of safety speaks of safety as a commodity. The language associated with the culture of safety is like this, drawn to materialistic metaphors and mechanical, numerical language. Apparently safety is something you can count therefore, when something is unsafe it can’t be counted. Amazing how such perverse logic feeds a sector that is so poorly educated and unable to think critically.

  8. What I find even more astonishing is the egregious performance of our peak safety bodies and their micturating sycophants with an obedience to the orthodoxy and receiving paychecks for silence. There is no left or right in politics, it is top versus bottom and the only thing in the middle of the road is a yellow streak and roadkill.

    Many years ago Aneurin Bevan, one of the best orators in UK parliament and architect of the NHS proclaimed…….We all know what happens to those who stand in the middle of the road, they get run over.

    Almost every presentation delivered at safety conferences is awash with obscurantist drivel that would rival the turgid sludge churned out by Jordan Peterson, the stupid man’s smart person and intellectual we deserve.

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