Over 40 years ago, the legendary founder of Lean Manufacturing and Total Quality Management, W. Edwards Deming, wisely told organizations to “Drive out fear so that everyone may work effectively for the company.” This is point eight in Deming’s famous “14 Points for Management,” and is as true today as it was when first published in 1981. Deming elucidated this idea that managers can, “Allow people to perform at their best by ensuring that they’re not afraid to express their ideas or concerns.” If Deming’s advice sounds a lot like today’s commonly heard concept of “psychological safety,” it should (as they mean pretty much the same thing).
Psychological safety was first presented by Schein and Bennis (1965) as a factor that is critical for ensuring employees feel secure and therefore more likely to act in ways that help meet organizational challenges such as workplace safety. If you hope to have the workforce actively collaborate with you in safety, or any effort, you must first ensure that your work environment is conducive to psychological safety. Psychological safety is dependent on established trust and, unfortunately, that circumstantial factor seems in short supply these days. The General Social Survey (GSS), first conducted in 1972 at the University of Chicago, analyzes sociological data for residents of the United States. In 2014, the GSS determined that only 30.3 percent of Americans agree that “most people can be trusted” (the lowest number in the survey’s history). This loss of personal trust parallels the loss of trust in virtually every public institution—from the government to businesses. Is our traditional safety vocabulary partially to blame? Even when spoken with the very best of intentions, much of our commonly used safety rhetoric seems at odds with psychological safety. If we hope to eliminate fear and build the trust and respect needed to optimize worker safety engagement, we must start by watching our language.
Consider the following list of safety program exhortations (something Deming could not abide).
1. Safety is priority 1! – Is this a believable statement? Workers know that profitable production is priority number one. It always has been, and as long as businesses function by creating revenue, it always will be.
2. Safety First! – See above.
3. Believe in zero. – Many receive this statement as a sign of disrespect for their intelligence at worst, and a naive optimism at best. A 2014 study published in Safety and Health detailed that only a slight minority (even within safety professionals) found this statement to be realistic.
4. All accidents are preventable. – The implication of this quip is that if you experience an accident, it’s your fault, therein rendering it an ineffective medium for driving fear out of an organization.
5. It’s been “x” days since our last lost-time accident. – This “accountability booster” typically leads to a group mindset of apprehension over being the one to “screw up the marvelous record.”
6. Safety is everyone’s responsibility. – Again, this label breaks down (instead of building up) the employee that gets involved in any kind of accident, defining them as “irresponsible.”
Regardless of our most noble intentions, these common “motivational” safety phrases are often perceived negatively by workers. Are these terms and exhortations building up trust in safety programs or are they making it more difficult to develop the psychological safety needed for safety excellence?
In addition to the previously stated slogans, many individual safety terms can serve to impede psychological safety. The following is a list of common safety terms utilized by EHS teams, paired with the general reception from the workforce.
- Safety officer – The enforcer’s here; better say, “yes Sir” or “yes Ma’am.”
- Compliance Officer – Someone who wants blind obedience.
- Unsafe act – Just another bad thing that people choose that causes the majority of accidents.
- Compliance – Management really does care (about rules).
- Vision zero – Management really does care (about numbers).
- Investigation – A process for detectives to find and blame the guilty.
- Audits – A process to look for something we did wrong.
- Cardinal rules – One strike and you’re out (if you get caught).
- Work observations – Someone is spying on us for “the man.”
Remember two things, or you could find yourself guilty of driving fear and cynicism into your organization (which, is the last thing you want to do). First, perception is reality. Secondly, language matters, so you might want to watch yours. If your workers feel intimidated or lack trust in what you’re telling them, it doesn’t matter what your intentions were. We can (and really should) do better. For starters, I’d suggest a careful review of any safety slogans or exhortations used within your company. Chances are your workers may be doubting the believability of such statements and may see them as disrespectful and patronizing platitudes. Therefore, my next suggestion is to remove such hackneyed phrases. If this is not possible, verifying that your slogans aren’t counteracting your safety goals and objectives is essential. Finally, recognize that words (such as officer, investigation, audit, observations, etc.) may carry considerable negative baggage that may only be changed for accurate, positive definitions by retraining your workforce.
Mr. Loud’s over 40 years of safety experience includes 15 years with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) where he served as the supervisor of Safety and Loss Control for a large commercial nuclear facility and later as manager of the corporate nuclear safety oversight body for all three of TVA’s nuclear sites. At Los Alamos National Laboratory he headed the independent assessment organization responsible for safety, health, environmental protection, and security oversight of all laboratory operations.
Mr. Loud is a regular presenter at national and international safety conferences. He is the author of numerous papers and articles. Mr. Loud is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP), and a retired Certified Hazardous Materials Manager (CHMM). He holds a BBA from the University of Memphis, an MS in Environmental Science from the University of Oklahoma and an MPH in Occupational Health and Safety from the University of Tennessee.