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Just What Do You Mean?

By Randy Logsdon

When It Comes to Safety, Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say.

 In the course of conversations concerning the performance of work, there are any number of phrases that may be said (and heard) with respect to safety. As a warning from one who likes to twist words to imply meaning contrary to the original intent, I submit the following short list of examples. The point is that what we say and how we say it matters. The message received may not be the same as the message sent.

Safety. . . it goes without saying.
In other words, safety is an assumption. I may not tell you to do it safely, but it’s implied. You should understand that without my telling you every time. The fact is, we should say what we mean. If safety is critical to the instruction, say so. That does not mean that the word “safety” must be attached to each line of instruction. It does mean that the instruction must clearly include a safety component. “I want you complete this task safely and this is what you need to do to accomplish that.”

Safety is important, but remember that production is what funds your paycheck.
True, efficient operation and an eye on cost control help to increase the margin of sales. Making the company profitable keeps those paychecks coming. What is more important to remember is that the same processes that lead to improved safety in the workplace, such as planning, thorough inspections, timely maintenance and quality training, also lead to more efficient production. The same companies who are consistently successful in the marketplace are also consistently successful at safety.

What does MSHA require?
The question may be totally legitimate, and compliance with MSHA is important. But in some contexts, the question may raise concerns about motive and values. Are we doing this because we want our personnel to be safe? Or are we doing this because someone (MSHA) says we must? When a supervisor returns to me saying that he’s fixed a hazardous condition for me, I clearly inform him that he did not do it for me – he did it for his crew.

If you’re not comfortable, don’t do it.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this. Call me oversensitive, but the statement falls far short of good safety instruction. In fact, it transfers the burden from the supervisor to the individual worker and his/her judgment: “It’s your call – but it better be the right one.” When all things are taken into consideration, the worker (or work group) can easily rationalize an acceptable degree of comfort. In the cases where workers or crews must work for extended periods alone, examples of what is acceptable and unacceptable must be clear. And if a judgment call must be made, it should be made with “confidence” not “comfort.”

I believe in safety as much as the next guy, but . . .
What comes after the “but”? The phrase can be restated: “I believe in safety but I’m going to ask you to do something that you think might be unsafe.” If we are to promote a culture of safety in the workplace, we must rise above the average (the next guy). We have to aim higher. In terms of maintaining safety credibility, this is a very dangerous statement.

That would never happen here (or that’s never happened here).
One thing that my 36 years in mining have taught me is that it can happen here and the fact that it has not happened yet is not a guarantee that it will not happen tomorrow. Murphy’s ears perk up when such statements are made. So when this is said, employ whatever superstitions apply (knock on wood or whatever). But more importantly, take the preventative steps that address the causative factors that allowed it to happen elsewhere. Yes, we can learn from the mistakes made by others.

As stated in the first paragraph, this is a short list. Given some thought, you will likely recall any number of similar ambiguous statements that just may have been taken the wrong way. Some may have been uttered from your own lips. The broader purpose is for you to reflect on how the use of words (as well intentioned as they may be) may be misinterpreted. On the advice of a technical writing expert, avoid clichés. We’ve heard them too often already. Instead, take an extra moment and choose your words wisely.