New York City’s police commissioner was defending his decision to boost subway security and alert the public about a possible terrorist threat early last month, although the bomb plot had not been verified. “We did exactly the right thing,” he declared.

The commissioner’s assertion, delivered with such determined confidence, sounded a lot like how business leaders talk about the safety of their workplaces. Seldom will you hear execs back down when the subject is safety. In fact, when it comes to public utterances about job safety, you usually get one of two speeches.

Limited vocabulary

Call one the victory pep talk. It’s trumpeted when raising the OSHA Voluntary Protection Program flag over the facility or setting a record for consecutive days worked without a recordable injury. In which case the exec says, with the conviction of the NYC police commissioner, “We’re extremely proud of this accomplishment and the culture of safety our team lives and breathes every day. Now let’s enjoy our barbecue on this special occasion.”

The other? Call it the “we’ll-get-to-the-bottom-of-this” declaration. It’s what an official says after the levee breaks, so to speak. After a dust explosion blows the plant roof to the heavens, after OSHA leaves a stack of citations in the front office — and only after company attorneys have vetted and approved the remarks.

A third variation, a hybrid of the first two, comes into play once in a while. You hear it from angry businessmen fighting OSHA fines or reports in the press of locking doors on midnight maintenance crews. It has the assertiveness of the first, but requires the legal scrutiny of the second. Call it the determined denial.

Do you notice a trend here? How often does a business manager say anything about safety when it’s not in reaction to something, either an award or a black eye?

Silence is deadly

In general, the public discourse about workplace safety is so predictable, so limited in scope and depth, so correct in choice of language, that it does a real disservice to furthering the cause of protecting people and reducing risks. So many critical issues just never get aired.

When was the last time you heard a business leader toss out lines like these:

“Prove to me world-class safety is worth the investment.”

“All our chemical exposures are well below permissible limits, allowing us to control costs by outsourcing industrial hygiene.”

“That risk is not worth reducing, and here’s why.”

“We believe job stress was a contributing factor to the incident.”

“I’ve seen no documented evidence that occupational health and safety management systems make businesses more profitable or productive. If we adopt one, it will be to gain credibility in European and Asian markets.”

You can stop laughing now. Of course execs will never say such things out loud. They have too many “stakeholders” peering over their shoulder: legal departments, shareholders and stock analysts, employees, customers and business partners, domestic regulators and foreign governments, fellow CEOs, advertising agencies, brand image consultants, etc. Step outside the bounds of acceptable safety talk and an exec has some explaining to do.

So safety and health issues are reduced to “It’s all good!” proclamations or vows that “This will never happened again.” Of course safety isn’t this black and white, but you’d never know it from the way business addresses the subject.

Stage fright

Fear is the bogey-man here, the reason public dialog about safety comes off so dry and empty. Fear of lawsuits, of looking bad or seeming callous. Fear of losing an edge to the competition, of losing association members or demoralizing the troops. Fear of inciting reporters, stirring up the unions, maybe antagonizing your peers in the management club (“Why’d you go and say that for? Now I’ve got to say something original about safety.”). And naturally, there’s the threat of losing your job.

The antidote for these risks: play it safe and put safety up there with motherhood and apple pie. “It’s all good!” and leave it at that.

Here’s another problem with how we talk about workplace safety in public: Not only do we steer clear from pivotal issues of the day, but we end up discrediting the very thing we’re trying to promote. As one safety manager said: “Execs fly off after a safety speech and people on the ground know darn good and well the pie in the sky will never arrive, and they are humiliated that the CEO/Manager thought they were stupid enough to believe the safety promises.”

Of course this fellow can’t be quoted by name, even if he isn’t talking about his own company. That’s how hair-trigger sensitive people are when it comes to saying anything negative — or honest — about safety.

Heck, it’d be a step in the right direction for businesses to hold honest conversations about safety even behind closed doors. Conversations that aren’t triggered by a tragedy. As risk communications expert Peter Sandman explains, when safety, becomes a sacred cow, it drives clear, realistic thinking underground. “And unacknowledged, furtive thinking is likely to be fuzzy thinking,” says Sandman.

Too many issues in safety go unacknowledged. Flat-out denials or puffed-out boasting too often mask fuzzy and shallow thinking about safety. And questions like, “Why should a company try to be world class?” or “How much safety is enough?” go unanswered. There’s much talk about the maturing of the safety and health field, but true maturity comes when you stop fooling yourself and start talking straight about what needs to improve.

— Dave Johnson, Editor