Excuse me, what did you just say?

Safety cannot be spoken about in isolation. It needs to be integrated into all discussions and actions in the workplace. The trick is to intentionally use directional language that takes companies to where they want to be.

While there are many factors and nuances that make each culture unique, the most significant distinguishing feature is language. What is the primary difference between Zulus and Xhosas, or Germans and the French? It is the language they speak.

Language plays such a vital role in a culture that many are named for or known by the language in which they communicate. Arabs speak Arabic, and Russians speak Russian. To inculcate a safety culture into the fabric of an organisation, leaders should take note of the predominant language being used. Even more so, they need to be mindful of the language they use – and sometimes don’t use.

For this article I would like to highlight two key points. First, humans tend to focus on the negative and speak about what went wrong. The trick is to intentionally use directional language that takes us to where we want to be. Second, safety cannot be spoken about in isolation. It needs to be integrated into all discussions and actions in the workplace.

Directional language – speak to what we want

Professor Sidney Dekker rightly calls for a new language in the safety community. Words like zero tolerance, non-negotiable, mandatory, adhere, obey and prohibited are commonplace. Professor Karl Weick maintains that this has resulted in the current language of policing and compliance.

Dekker argues that this mindset stems from a belief where people are seen as the problem. Investigations are quick to conclude that incidents are a result of “human error.” A new mindset is needed; one where safety is not seen “as the absence of negative events” but, preferably, where people are seen as “the source of solutions and success”.

We need to change our vocabulary away from negatives, violations and failure – which are usually exceptions – to the constant success of getting the job done safely.

While failures do occur, the majority of times there is success. The focus should be on the presence of positive capacities. When leaders start to see the potential of their people, they will begin to use different, more powerful language.

The other day I walked past a “do not walk on the grass” sign. It seemed sensible and innocent. However, it made me wonder how frequently we communicate what we don’t want as opposed to sharing what we do want. Would it not be better for it to say, “stay on the walkway”?

Why is it that so much of our communication is rule-based? How often do we treat people as if they are stupid children that need to be told what to do? It is highly unlikely that they come to work to injure themselves. Would it not be better received if we engaged our workers as experts in what they do, particularly recognising that they know how to do their work safely?

Based on this idea, a client recently modified several signs used in the organisation. For example, a sign that used to read “a permit to work must be obtained before commencing work” now says “I work only with a valid permit”, and the sign that read “PPE must be worn” was amended to “I always wear the appropriate PPE”. Such a different tone was created by subtly changing the language.

Even the notion of “safety is our first priority” was reworded to “safety always”. That is because priorities change, and, sometimes, safety slips to second or even third place once the pressure is on. Positioning the sign this way, the activity is carried out safely no matter when we do something.

Having an integrated language

I have attended many meetings where the first agenda point is safety. Usually, this is to give recognition to the importance of safety. While this is a noble idea, it is fundamentally flawed.

Starting a meeting with a safety moment and then continuing to all the other agenda items without referring to safety again is disconcerting. It inadvertently tells people that safety is merely something to tick off before moving on to the other weighty agenda items.

Instead of having a safety topic or item, would it not be more valuable and relevant to discuss how every activity would be executed safely? Julia Agnew explained that safety needs to be incorporated into how work is done. “It isn’t treated as something separate to be discussed during the weekly safety meeting, or only at a shift change. Safety should be part of every conversation and considered in every decision.”

My all-time favourite concerns a supervisor, who, after completing his toolbox talk, realised he hadn’t mentioned anything about safety. So as everyone was walking out, he shouted: “Oh, and be safe!” What’s the implication? Safety is not critical, but merely an afterthought.

What leaders emphasise in their regular conversations sends a strong signal of what is essential to them. Naturally, meetings revolve around the drivers of the business: operational logistics, deadlines, budgets and profitability. None of these will ever disappear.

The question is: if safety is truly imperative, does it receive prominence by being integrated into discussions regarding daily planning, production targets, strategy, HR and budgets? It cannot be relegated to an agenda item.

We recently assessed a company’s safety culture, and it is noteworthy that the senior manager was absent. Inquiring about this, I was told that I needed to understand that he was under a lot of pressure and didn’t have time to focus on safety initiatives – that was the job of the safety department.

They need to ask themselves whether this the statement they want their subordinates to hear? No wonder this company has safety challenges. I don’t know anyone who isn’t under pressure. If a company wants an agile safety culture, then it cannot be driven by the safety department. This department is there to promote and support.

Safety needs to be driven by senior leaders, especially production managers and those in charge of where the action is. When leaders are too busy to be part of safety drives, undertake routine safety walkabouts, or attend safety meetings, the message is resoundingly clear.

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