Safety is an ambiguous term. Ask 10 people to define “safety.” It can be co-workers, supervisors, front line employees, executive leaders, a family member, it doesn’t matter. You will get 10 different responses. Some may look at you with a quizzical look as if to say, “well, isn’t that common sense?”
Safety professionals use the term frequently, yet seldom define the term. Ask most any front line employee and you just might get a response something like, “that’s all I ever hear, safety, safety, safety, blah, blah, blah.” If you have safety responsibilities, keep a tally. Count the number of times you use the word “safety” either verbally or in writing over the next week. If you are in double digits, your message is garbled and chances are the receiver is hearing “blah, blah, blah.”
I am one who believes the term is overused and results in an ambiguous message at best and indifference at worst. Rather than using the word “safety”, I propose that we define safety in operational terms especially if we are speaking with front line employees. For example, rather than saying “be safe in the warehouse”, you might say “we have a large shipment arriving today and there will be lots of forklift activity. If you need to be in the warehouse stay in pedestrian only areas, stop at blind corners, wear a reflective vest and stay at least 10ft from all forklifts.”
Don’t send an ambiguous message when it comes to safety, define it in operational terms...oops, easier said than done but I’m working on it.
On this Thanksgiving week, I am thankful for my first safety director, Jim Swartz, who taught me the lesson of using operational words to add more power to my message and many other lessons early in my safety career at Delta Air Lines.