Many of us, myself included, use the word SAFE (and unsafe) in our writings and discussions. If you work in the Safety Management field, it is likely even in your job title.
What I find amusing and sometimes disturbing is that when challenged about their definition of the word “SAFE” people in the Safety Profession often stumble and stutter when it comes to providing THEIR definition.
Alan’s article prompted me to resurrect this article which did generate some interesting discussion a while back……..
Someone asked me the other day: “What is Safety”? Damn good question…….They say it is critical for most people in deciding where they go, what they buy and what they do, consciously or unconsciously. Until a couple of years ago I never really thought much about it, I thought I was just doing it. Is it just “it is what it is”? If you can this question quickly and succinctly then I guess you really haven’t thought much about it either! It is bound to be a different thing for different people – Its a bit like asking “what is Love”?
If you are a Safety Manager then what are you managing if it cant be properly measured, understood or defined? Are you managing things (hazards), statistics, systems, compliance, behaviours, feelings, failures, thoughts or perceptions? Is that Safety? If you are a Zero Harm Manager – do you manage nothing?
I often get called into organisations under some concern about safety, many see my work as something about ‘behaviors’ but that is not what I am on about. Some think my writing is about safety but its not, and some want me to give ‘fixit’ type stories and illustrations on how to improve safety at work, but I don’t. Can I just say this, if your world is just about safety, then your world is too small.
When I come in to organisations I often start with a range of consultations, ‘walk-arounds’, observations and preliminary training, then deliver some services or maybe a program and it doesn’t take long before someone will come up to me and say: ‘Rob, this is not just about safety is it?’ and when that happens I know we are starting to get somewhere.
Safety shouldn’t be about safety, it should be about living and learning. When safety is made into some bureaucratic, legal or club exercise, it has lost the plot. This is why I prefer to talk much more about risk than I do about safety. The moment you tell someone you are into safety they think you are either the fun police or some legal nerd who loves checklists. If safety is some engineering exercise of shifting objects to keep some system clean, then I think we have lost the plot. If safety is about trying to memorize sections of the Act so that we can dominate and rule others, then we have lost the plot. If safety is a power trip so that we can bully others to ‘keep them safe for their own good’, then we have lost the plot. Safety should be about none of these things. When we put learning first, people first, relationships first, respect first and living first, then we might get to the heart of safety.
Helen Keller once said something like:
“Safety is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.
Someone once said to me:
“Safety is something that happens between your ears, not something you hold in your hands.”
- Is safety something you do or part of what you do – drive safely, what does that mean?
- Is Safe something that you be – I promise to be safe – that will sound good but what does it really mean?
- Is safety something you take – Take safety precautions, take safety seriously?
- Is safety something you ensure – Ensure the health and safety of others, how do you do that, how can you guarantee it?
- Is Safety a place you go to – The children were taken to safety, is it really safe?
- Is Safety a more short-term or external physical thing as opposed to Health?
- Is Safety a real thing or do you just feel it – It looks safe, or does it feel safe?
- Is Safety something you think or actually are – I’m worried about my safety but am I really safe here?
- Is Safety something that just exists when you aren’t in danger – The workplace is safe because it is hazard free?
- Are Safety and Danger things that are mutually exclusive or is protection from danger called risk management – I have protection so it will be safe?
- Is it something that is always 100% guaranteed as some Zero Harm proponents would believe?
- What about when something is called “the safest” or “the safest way” – is that a perception, has worked before or based on fact and data or just luck?
- Is Safety First, the No1 Priority or should it be just part of everything we do? The hourly workers know the truth about that!
- Is Zero Harm the new or better term for Safety? I hope not!
Now I’m totally confused!!!!!!!
In researching this topic I came across a website devoted to the question: www.whatissafety.com/. This is a website for travellers and asks the questions “what is safety for air travellers” and “what is safety for hiker”. They mention that “safe” and “safety” are in the top 2000 words in the English language?? Not much of use there
Let’s look at the definitions of Safety, official or otherwise:
From the most “trusted” Source, (Wikipedia):
“Safety is the state of being “safe” (from French sauf), the condition of being protected against physical, social, spiritual, financial, political, emotional, occupational, psychological, educational or other types or consequences of failure, damage, error, accidents, harm or any other event which could be considered non-desirable. Safety can also be defined to be the control of recognized hazards to achieve an acceptable level of risk. This can take the form of being protected from the event or from exposure to something that causes health or economical losses. It can include protection of people or of possessions.”
Definition of safety: noun (plural safeties)
1 [mass noun] the condition of being protected from or unlikely to cause danger, risk, or injury: they should leave for their own safety, the survivors were airlifted to safety
2 [as modifier] denoting something designed to prevent injury or damage: a safety barrier a safety helmet
3 [count noun] North American short for safety catch.
Or, for a simplistic definition from www.Ask.com
“Safety means keeping yourself and others free from harm or danger. It means taking care not to fall or bump or run into things. It also means to avoid accidents by being careful with what you are doing.”
Isn’t it strange how the quest for safety is used to justify all range of unethical practice. As long as we put the intention and words of safety in front of some practice or some idea, we are somehow allowed to bully, intimidate, manipulate, overpower and say anything offensive, as long as we speak the sacred unchallenged words of safety.
Therefore Safety Is
As Gab Carlton wrote in Safety Solutions Wont Move a Hippo:
We need to understand that risk and safety is a wicked problem. In other words it’s complex and one that cannot be ‘fixed’ by simple, silver bullet solutions. Risk and safety is complex because we are dealing with humans. Humans, by design, are very complex and are averse to being told what to do. We are not motivated by this. We are not motivated by bullies who just want us to comply, like the lion. We are not motivated by pushing or shoving or bouncing for that matter. If we want to understand how people are motivated firstly we need to understand the psychology of goals, we need to understand human beings.
• Safety as a concept resists and attempt at a simple definition and is in turn inherently complex;
• There is a need to focus on the role of people within the workplace and their inherent resiliance, bias, rationalities, flexibility and fallibility; and
• We must look way beyond systems and compliance.
• Safety can be seen as something that comes out of the organisation that allows it to achieve its objectives (even in a high risk environment). In this way, safety is not something that is done to the organisation, but comes out of it.
So what is your definition of Safe or Safety? (please read some of the articles linked to in this post before you answer as they may change your thinking)
Why Safety Is Important to Me
Been lots of heated discussions and chest beating and on this site and Safety Forums lately which is really healthy but I thought that, just for a moment, we should all step back, take a deep breath, let the dust settle and take a moment to reconsider what safety is really all about. One of our counterparts – Sarah-Jane, The Safety Nerd, from Riskology Consulting sent me this video yesterday. It is so simple and raw yet sends a very powerful message. Made me remember how and why I got into this game. Please take a moment to watch and enjoy this short video and share it with anyone who you think may need a good dose of compassion and empathy.