Safety By Any Other Name

By Phil La Duke

For the record, I’m against euphemisms; I believe masking the inadequacies or social stigma of one state by calling it something else is wrong-headed and pathetic.  I’ve been called a lot of things, but politically correct isn’t one of them.  On other hand, I’ve always been in favor of calling things as I see them and I do firmly believe that words matter.  Many words carry an emotional charge to which people react viscerally, without really understanding why they are reacting so strongly or violently to something that has been written or said to them.

In my blog and in my articles for publication I use words to incite, to prove points, to shock, and hopefully to stimulate debate. The one word I have been struggling with lately is “safety” and I think it’s time we stop using it to describe our profession.

We aren’t, after all, safety professionals.  Safety, as defined by dictionary.com is “the state of being safe; freedom from the occurrence or risk of injury, danger, or loss.” This is clearly not what we are expected to do, and in my opinion the state of being safe, i.e. being free from all risk of injury, danger, or loss is impossible.  Life carries with it at least some (often much) risk.  We as professionals cannot and will not ever succeed in eliminating risk.

Let’s look at our profession, Worker Health & Safety, and see this appellation for what it is, a prelude to failure.  Few of us do much to keep workers healthy. Sure there are industrial hygienists who work to protect workers from harmful exposure to toxins and chemicals, and others who worry over pandemic response and contingency plans but few of us are actually charged with keeping workers healthy.  For that matter, I’m not sure it makes sense to task a department to keep workers healthy when so much of the worker’s health depends on his or her lifestyle, heredity, and sundry other issues that can cause people to become ill.  Additionally, many workers resist attempts by employers to improve the overall health of the workers; smoking cessation and physical fitness campaigns are often met with indifference or even outright hostility by employees; but that’s neither here nor there—I don’t see many people all that interested in that debate. So if we can agree (and six years of blogging has taught me that this is seldom the case) that the word “health” doesn’t belong in our titles, what then of the word “safety”? Does it accurately convey what we do for a living? I have my doubts.

I think that a better description of our profession is “Injury Prevention”; isn’t the elimination of worker injuries precisely what we’re expected to do? What difference does it make? What possible benefit is there to changing our title from “Worker Safety” to “Worker Injury Prevention?” For starters, the name change helps us focus on our ultimate goal (okay, some might argue that our ultimate goal is to support operations by eliminating process failures (behavioral, procedural, or administrative) associated with worker injuries, but that is way too long a title to put on a business card).

Changing the name of Safety to Injury Prevention carries with it the added advantage of clearly identifying what we do to laity.  Gone will be the days when we tell people we work in safety and they don’t really understand what we do.  Tell someone you work in worker safety and they envision the safety cop dishing out useless advice and telling operations what they can’t do instead of advising them on how to do the job with a minimal uninformed or uncalculated risk.  “Injury Prevention” speaks for itself.

Could we call ourselves something else, maybe something that better conveys our commitment to risk reduction? Of course, but in so doing we chance confusing our vocation with risk management.

The name change would be more than a cosmetic exercise.  By changing the name of our profession we would be continually reminded of our course purpose and would be less likely to be distracted with bureaucratic tasks and activities.  We might even get Operations leadership to ask questions like, “what does planning the company picnic have to do with injury reduction?” or, “why do we have a ‘injury reduction’ day? Isn’t every day ‘injury reduction’ day?” In short, the name change will cause others to view us differently and when others view us differently we begin to behave differently.  The name change will increase the organizations expectations of us and we in turn will have the opportunity to truly contribute to the overall success of the organization.

A name change alone won’t get us where we need to be, but it’s a good start.  Even if tomorrow the organization started thinking of us as championing worker injury prevention that only opens the door to greater professional respect.  We have to behave distinctly differently.  We have to pare down the function to its most crucial elements and discard the things that cost money, consume time and resources that we are currently doing.

It won’t be easy.  Professional organizations like the National Safety Council and the American Society of Safety Engineers would have to spend a fortune changing their letterheads and branded materials. And I don’t even want to think how many tax payer dollars would be spent changing OSHA materials, but I believe it’s a small price to pay.

A name change may seem like an inconsequential, even futile gesture, but I believe that a name change is the first step to a substantial shift in how we view ourselves and how others view us. 

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