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Don’t let your exhortations ring hollow

Be disciplined when using words to create action

July 9, 2014
With more experience traveling around in the real world seeing safety programs in action (or inaction) I realize that words matter. They not only communicate but they can shape the very approach you take to your safety programming. They can get you stuck or they can liberate your safety culture.

Consider the term “Safety” which is a chameleon of a word. The word is used in so many different ways.

“Safety” is most often a NOUN when we decree “Safety first”. This may seem like a great slogan that would inspire the workforce to think through the safety implications of their actions.  But the great slogan may also just be a feel-good sign with no real benefit.  W. Edwards Deming, the late influential quality guru, called these “exhortations.” Exhortations, Deming told us, give us the illusion that these outcomes are achievable and if employees simply tried harder, they would do better. This offends the worker — it does not inspire the worker. 

 “Safety” can also be a PROPER NOUN which is used to denote a particular person, place, or thing:  “Let’s call in Safety to take care of this.”  As a safety professional you should hate this use of the word because it creates the assumption that safety is a role that is done by one person or department.  It’s too easy for individuals, work teams, supervisors, professionals, managers, and leaders to see safety as someone else’s job. This is not the type of proactive safety culture you are trying to build. Performing your job safely, making decisions that impact safety, and looking out for the safety of others is everyone’s job. 

Loose talk blames employees

“Safety” can be an ADJECTIVE that is used to describe a particular quality of another word.  Consider the sentence: “You are an unsafe employee.” First of all, how can someone be un-something? An un-person is dead.  Secondly, when you use adjectives, you are labeling the subject of your sentence: “You are unsafe.” We may as well say, “You are stupid”.  When you use a label, you’re under the illusion that you’ve arrived at a root cause of a problem. But all you’ve done is exonerate yourself of the responsibility of finding the real risk and change real behaviors. 

“Safety” can be an ADVERB such as in “I’m going to have to write you up for not climbing that ladder safely.” Here safety is an outcome; safety is the lack of injury. This use of the word “Safety” drives our measures and motivations to be outcome-based.  Traditional outcome-based measures are a rate of injuries over labor hours, severity indexes, or other rates reported upwards and outwards. Lagging indicators do not show you where risks are being taken, only where they had been taken. You can’t manage safety through lagging indicators… if you do you’ll be laying awake at night waiting for that phone call.

A call for inaction

“OK guys, let’s be safe in everything we do today”. The use of “safe” in this sentence is a SUBJECT COMPLEMENT ADJECTIVE. It may sound good but “be safe” is not a call to action; it’s a call for inaction. The best way to “be safe” is not to act at all, not to come into contact with hazards, and not work. But our actions are badly needed to create a safe outcome.  We need to engage the guards, wear PPE, read instructions, talk to others; we need to act.

In none of these grammatical uses is our word “Safety” actually doing anything. For action we need it to be a verb.

“Safety” is not a verb. 

 Behaviors contain real action verbs. Action verbs make them operational; when someone operates they are doing something. That’s why in behavioral science we call behaviors “Operants.”

So consider the following sentence structure when instructing someone how to operate:

• Do What?                 (Action Verb)

• To What?                  (Subject)

• When?                      (Context)

• To Achieve What?    (Purpose)

For example: “Lock out and tag … the equipment energy source…  after your task briefing … to remove the risk of energy being turned on while workers are engaging the equipment.”

This sentence has all the components.  It gives you a clear operation.  It tells you the context where the operation should be done. And it suggests the consequence of the action. When presented correctly, your safety directions can be discriminant stimuli that exert control over behavior in predictable ways.  Otherwise, they can be ineffective exhortations.

So build a disciplined approach to using words to create action. Use this sentence structure when you train, write instructions, give prompts, provide feedback and when you record behaviors in incident reports, JSA’s, and in BBS trend graphs. 

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