I quite often hear the lament from the safety fraternity that "my manager doesn't understand me ..." To this I reply - when one understands the myriad of demands placed upon C-level personnel, why should it be incumbent upon them to "learn the language of safety (environment, labour laws, accounting, IP, IT, etc). Rather, if safety pros are so keen to have their voices heard, the responsibility should be on them to learn the language of management, and place their commentary in the management context.

In my experience the safety profession cannot come to agreement with the terms it uses. I have commented on the insanity of using the term "incident" as a euphemism for "accident" which seems to be the preferred position of the safety profession (although, pleasingly, this seems to be changing, albeit slowly).

It’s time the profession realized that C-level executives know what an accident is, and introducing a new term with fluffy edges around it complicates a conversation.

But worse than this is when one tries to explain a couple of the fundamental tenets of the safety discipline. By way of example - we often cite the "systems approach to managing hazards" and the "hierarchy of controls" as the 2 most important premises around which safety efforts are built. But the systems approach (as it is most often taught in Australia) exists as an open loop, with no feedback mechanism (goodness - C-level execs will understand what constitutes a system!) and my research in Australia has emphasized that there exist 5 different versions of the hierarchy of controls, with the number of the levels ranging from 5 to 7 (and one international model postulated nearly 2 dozen levels!). 

For years the safety movement has thrust the concept of a simple (can I call it linear with offending folks?) relationship between the number of "near misses" to "fatalities". C-level executives just don't swallow this stuff…

And so the safety movement resorts to the potential threat of sanction if an organisation breaks the safety legislation. A really interesting piece of work done in the early 90s by the Australian industry Commission found that the likely penalty for a legislative breach (based upon #of inspections; chance of prosecution and likely fine) was $33. Compare that to jail time and fines of hundreds of thousands of dollars for a breach of the Corporations Code, and once can see why the threat of punitive outcomes falls short of attracting C-level executives attention.

Martin Ralph, managing director of Australia's largest safety solutions organization, the Industrial Foundation for Accident Prevention (IFAP)

The thesis around speaking in a business language makes perfect sense.  As the senior leaders of our profession I believe we can also take on the opportunity to inspire management to “step up” around our shared goals.  As important as “Leaning In” is for us we also need to “Lean on” leaders to help them meet their accountabilities for Safety, Health and Environmental responsibilities.

The public stakeholders and investors are trusting them to be successful with our help.   It is their spotlight that we need them to see shining brightly into their offices, plants and boardrooms.

Fay Feeney

It is our responsibility as safety and health professionals to learn to speak the language of management, because that is just another tool in our toolbox for helping to provide a safe and healthful workplace. Just as we must we able to speak the language of the workers to gain their cooperation, we must learn to speak the language of management/business to gain the support and cooperation of management.

We need to be able to explain to management how our safety and health program fits into and supports the company's goals. We need to learn how to present our information in a clear consist manner in order to gain their attention quickly, and leave the in-depth details as an appendix for later reading. 

We are partners with management and the employees, and it is our responsibility to ensure we speak the language necessary for both groups to hear and understand our message.

It is like visiting a country that does not speak your native tongue, if you want to get around more easily, you learn their language rather than demanding that they know your language. Our success is our responsibility, and if it takes learning the language of management/ business then that is what we as safety professionals must do.

Terrie Norris (former ASSE president)

I fully agree that "...  if safety pros are so keen to have their voices heard, the responsibility should be on them to learn the language of management, and place their commentary in the management context."  To that extent I am currently doing a Diploma of Management.  However, I see learning the language of management to be an adjunct, not an alternative. To my mind, far too many management personnel do not regard safety as one of their responsibilities (that's what we have a safety department for)and perilous few are active enough tolearn the language of safety.

Rick Duly (from Australia)

I remember when I was an Air Force Bioenvironmental Engineer and, during a dinner at a symposium, an Assistant Secretary of the Air Force admonished us for being “too technical.” I learned the hard way during my career that, those who rise to the highest levels of an organization are not those with extensive technical knowledge but those who only know the basics and can communicate with managers and executives in simple terms. 

So that’s what I try to do now. Sometimes the laws are a bit too complicated, but we need to try to explain them as simple as we can.


The comment "'learn the language of safety..." speaks more to the safety professional's tendency to jargon-up every conversation. Business leaders have a people on staff (from lawyers, to industrial hygienists, to lean practitioners, to six sigma black belt, to, yes safety professionals) who they count on to interpret and translate the language embedded in the law into language that gives the leader the information he or she needs to make sound business decisions.

An old school consultant from Accenture once told me that you should always keep your answers short, because the longer you talk (and the more jargon you use) the more nervous the business leader becomes. The longer the answer the more concerned the leader becomes that he or she is making a bad decision and the less likely that your advice will be followed. 

Is it reasonable to expect the VP of EH&S to understand in detail the language of environmental law, health regulations and requirements, and safety laws and requirements? I’ll leave that for each of you to decide.

But back to the topic at hand, if you have a boss who is expecting “plain English” responses but who is getting “safety word salad” from an employee who similarly expects the boss to understand the simplest terms of the profession, then you tend to have a boss that stops listening (and approving) to warnings and recommendations.

The employee feels disengaged, disrespected, and unvalued (and is probably correct) while the boss resents paying someone who can’t answer a yes or no question without using the words “it depends”.

The employee sees the boss as a clueless boob, and the boss sees the employee as a useless technocrat. 

Working with someone who thinks you are a clueless boob makes you resent and dislike them (and probably treat them less respectfully than you would if the person treated you like a mentor and guide.) Working FOR someone who thinks you are a useless technocrat and who ignores your every warning or suggestion tends to make you hate your boss and your job.

Clearly, not every safety professional is in this circumstance, however, enough are that they made the list of people who hate their jobs/bosses.

So to sum up my typically long-winded response, poor communication leads to a lack of trust and respect that leads to bad behavior and ill treatment which causes people to hate their jobs and bosses.

Phil LaDuke