Safety Culture / Psychology

Mottos Don't Motivate


“I need some help with some short slogans for daily safety meetings. Any ideas?” asks a safety pro on an Internet bulletin board. Where would we be without safety slogans? Is there a safety program anywhere without them? Slogans and posters have been program staples forever.

But as an editor, I’m like a nitpicking OSHA inspector when it comes to words. And after scanning the Internet for safety slogans, I wonder how many mottoes really motivate. Here’s what I mean:

Matters of interpretation

“Put safety first or you will not last.” Wanna bet? The odds are, I will.

“Do your job the safe way, every day.” What about everyone else around here?

“Safety is not just part of the job, it is the job.” Tell it to the guy who signs my check.

“YOU Hold The Key To Safety.” But the CEO holds the biggest key…

“Seven days without safety makes one WEAK.” I’ve been here 20 years. Who you calling weak?

“Look forward to tomorrow with safe decisions today.” Let’s hope management’s decisions are safe ones.

“We need you! Work safely.” Then why do we keep laying off people?

“SAFETY - The measure of success.” Tell it to our stockholders.

“Safety is a race we can all win.” I thought haste makes waste.

“Safety is a Frame of Mind, Get the Picture.” But does my supervisor get it?

“Safety starts with ‘S’ but begins with ‘YOU’.” I thought safety starts at the top.

“The chance taker is the accident maker.” But they pay our CEO millions to take risks.

“Safety is you.” I thought it was a culture thing…

“What's it Worth - Safety First” What are quality and profits worth?

“Safety practices ... Do or die.” But I haven’t seen anyone die around here.

“Safety... A commitment to yourself.” Where’s the company’s commitment?

“Safety first makes us last.” If we don’t turn a profit none of us will last.

“Safety turns me on.” To each their own.

“Safety, it's for life.” Let’s keep religion out of this…

“Safety will set you free.” Let’s leave politics out of this.

Hitting the mark Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place in the workplace for slogans and mottoes. Just be careful about the message you convey, the tone you use. Slogans can be turn offs, not turn ons, if you miss these points:

1) Where’s the leadership? Many slogans put the onus on YOU. What about teamwork? Shared values? Management’s commitment?

2) Let’s be realistic. Safety loses credibility with inflated promises and claims (Safety First!) that are out of touch with the way work really gets done.

3) Don’t get carried away. A preacher isn’t everyone’s idea of a working buddy. Some slogans vibrate with righteousness - it’s my way or the highway.

4) Safety suffers from too many “shoulds” and “musts” and “shalls” and “oughts” as it is. Bossy slogans remind everyone of the demands and commands. Inflexibility breeds pushback. Just ask OSHA.

The big picture Slogans should reflect what former Treasury Secretary and Alcoa Chairman Paul O’Neill called the three characteristics of great organizations:

Employees are treated with dignity and respect. Respect what employees know to be true about how safety is really handled in the workplace. Be honest about safety’s sacrifices and inconveniences. They do exist.

Employees are encouraged to make contributions that give meaning to their lives. Show how safety contributes in a meaningful way, how the organization and everyone in it benefits.

Those contributions are recognized. If your slogans urge someone to do something safely, and they do it, recognize it, or the slogan rings hollow.

O’Neill also said: “Safety is a tangible way to show that human beings really matter.” (Do your slogans sincerely get that value across?)

"Leadership uses safety to make human connections across the organization. Stamping out incidents and telling employees we can get to zero incidents is a way to show caring about people. This is leadership."

(What do your signs and slogans say about your company’s values and commitments?) Safety slogans and posters can keep awareness up, put safety front and center. But they need to spring from an organization that walks the talk, like O’Neill fostered at Alcoa. Otherwise, they are not credible, but only band-aids patched over a cracked culture.

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