by Dave Collins on January 4, 2017

in Simplistic Safety,Wicked Problems,Workplace Safety

SAFETY – What is Safety? The World’s Hardest Question? What does Safety mean to you?

If SAFETY is just “zero harm” then LOVE is just “zero hate”

See also: What ISN’T Safety

Alan Quilley recent published this article on his blog: What is YOUR definition of SAFE?. He says:

Manwhat is safetyy 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?

This article by Dr Rob Long provides some of the answers: Safety should not be about Safety, Rob says:

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:


Oxford Dictionary: 

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.”

Of course any word so popular and powerful is going to be abused and Rob Long explains in his recent article “Safety Justifies Anything and Everything” He says:

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)


Below is an extract from an interesting article by Jenny Krasny first published here:

Curious now, I set out to ask some of my colleagues the question of ‘safety’ – what it means to them…and here are some of their answers:

1. “To be free from risk of physical harm” – a site supervisor,

2. “Something that protects you – a barrier – from harm” – a tradesman,

3. “A sense that nothing (or no one) will intentionally hurt me” – a customer service consultant,

4. “Somewhere I can go to let down my guard” – a senior manager,

5. “It’s about people – looking after each other, keeping an eye out for my mates” – an underground mine worker.

Even with my small sample, ‘safety’ was reported to be a feeling, a physical object or place, and an action. For some other people, ‘safety’ referred to something personal, individuals and intimate – a felt experience -, while for others, the word extended to include the environment – animate or inanimate – in which people lived or worked. If a handful of ‘safety’ definitions can exist right under my nose, I am fascinated to discover how else ‘safety’ is conceptualised, perceived and experienced. It certainly has me wondering about the implications that this has on ‘safety initiatives’ that are taking place in organisations around the globe. Is there a shared understanding of what the concept means and how it is played out across various levels in a business? Is this concept reinforced or sabotaged by the systems, structures and procedures that are in place?

As I don my researcher’s hat, I’m keen to understand the depth and breadth of what ‘safety’ means for people, and invite you to leave a comment as to what the word means to you.

Understanding that each thinks of safety differently becomes vitally important when we try to create a culture of safety excellence. It demonstrates the importance of involving every person in the organisation – from the ground up – in the conversation. We need to shift our mindsets from only accepting top-down safety communication to supporting bottom-up ownership of it. Let’s combine these different employee perceptions of safety and in supporting each of them, we will be another big step closer to safety excellence.

What does safety mean to you?

Why Safety Is Important to Me

safety 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.


  • Willem

    Is daily life not about taking acceptable risks? You can stay in bed all day long to avert risks, but even then one is still at risk …

    • Absolutely, that’s why we should stop talking about “safety” and talk about “risk”. If we want words to describe how we help people to manage risk then perhaps “care” and “empathy” are more appropriate than “safety”.

  • Willem

    A lot of, if not most, Safety “Professionals” here define Safety as “taking acceptable risks”

    • Dave Collins

      Would one be even safer by not taking those risks at all or does risk aversion come with it’s own dangers?

  • I think in simplest words “safety is a culture to protect man material and machine”.

  • Wynand

    Of course, “safety” is also situational. If you are in a war zone and reach a bunker after running through an area exposed to gunfire, you will probably say: “I am safe”. We say “I am home safely” (referring to the exposure of travel risks or sometimes just to the weather like in “safe from the rain”). We talk about a “safe place” to talk, meaning we trust others not to hurt us with what was said in the discussion, we talk about a “safe distance” from a dangerous animal. We also talk about someting is “safe to eat” meaning it is not poisonous, but it can also mean it tastes good, or is not too spicy (again according to the preferences and habits of the eater) or too hot or cold. In the end, it is all relative. (I have a question here – if safety is relative, as I claim, how do you then measure it in absolute terms? Can anything that is defined in relative terms ever be measured in absolute terms?)

  • Maybe safety is a delusional state of mind that believes there is no risk. Or the temporary state of thinking that one won’t die.

  • nilesh narte

    safety means precaution to avoid accident & damages

  • John S

    Safety is “An except able level of Risk”.

  • Chris Keehn

    After all of those wise thoughts, try another idea about defining safety.

    Safety could be defined as having an “ability”. An ability to spend time with family, to play golf badly, to fish often. An ability to make a conscious decision to do or not to do something. Some people have a significant level of the ability and some people need to work hard at developing/maintaining it? Soooo, do we then need to coach/mentor an “ability” to get the best out of it at all levels?? 🙂

  • Avinash Karnik

    There is one Sanskrit word which coveys several meanings, which are perhaps relevant.

    योगक्षेम yogakSema m. keeping safe of property
    योगक्षेम yogakSema m. welfare
    योगक्षेम yogakSema m. livelihood
    योगक्षेम yogakSema m. property destined for pious uses and sacrifices
    योगक्षेम yogakSema m. insurance
    योगक्षेम yogakSema m. prosperity
    योगक्षेम yogakSema m. charge for securing property
    योगक्षेम yogakSema m. substance


  • Dammit, I hate people like you who ask questions like that! Now I have to seriously think about the whole philosophy down to its roots!

    But seriously, that’s an excellent question and I am certain that if one of us digs around long enough we’ll find that someone, somewhere earned a PhD trying to answer it. As I am NOT that PhD, I can only give you the prime reason which drives me: I want MY people (anyone in my building or on my property) going home the same way they came in – on their two feet.

    By John Schneider on LinkedIn

  • Safety is being happy and healthy and alert; healthy and alert and happy; alert and happy and healthy, just the mix is different. Shaz.

    • Someone said to me the other day: “Do you want to be happy or right”?

  • Wynand

    Some more fun descriptions (where I understand “safety” to mean “safer”):
    Safety matches (i.e. two components are needed to strike the match).
    Safety pins (smaller chance of hurting the baby when used for nappies)
    Safety belt (less chance of serious injury)
    Safety shoes

  • Wynand

    In a presentation to post-graduate students I presented “safety” (in inverted commas) as the systems and processes we use to address the “safety” requirements at work, since the more abstract word has too wide a meaning to describe. It remains a difficult concept, but one thing mathematics taught me is that one can define any term and work according to that definition for the rest of the problem. It would therefore make sense to define the term, rather than to try and use a dictionary to use as reference – the reference is just too wide.

    As to Kayakjims’ comment about the “acceptable risk employee” – what do you mean by that? Do you want to replace all risk takers with “zero harm” employees. According to Robert Long’s books, that means you also want to replace all your innovative, creative and thinking employees with risk-averse employees? Getting a “warm and fuzzy feeling” about safety is difficult to achieve, and for me the biggest compliment my colleagues can give me is that I helped them being productive. For me, safety is a result, not a purpose or goal. The purpose is quality work, and high quality work will lead to safety. Why? Because some of the largest components of quality are the same as for safety: Plan, think, pay attention, be proud of the product. “Safety” should be a large part of facilitating the planning process to include best practices to do the job.

  • The noun “safety” means freedom from danger or lack of danger, according to my dictionary. It means inability to cause harm or damage. That seems to imply that it is absolute, and we all know there 50 shades of gray when it comes to safety. The Thesaurus relates the word to safeness, security, surety, impregnability, invulnerability and such.
    The root word is the noun “safe.” The words safe, save and salvage all come from the Latin “salvua” which means ‘uninjured’. TMI? I think too often we don’t look at the very basis of what we are doing and get caught up in the latest trends and are overwhelmed with so much information that we sometimes can’t determine what is important and what is not. So I applaud Dave for his question.
    By Jim Morrison on LinkedIn

  • Great post and comments! Agreed that there is no ‘acceptable’ level of injury or risky work environments. Zero harm, the goal of no incidents may be lofty though again is achievable even if each and every risk factor is not eliminated, even our problem children in the workforce! I guess that would be an acceptable risk if top mgt does not follow their disciplinary action policy then!

    Here’s another go at it…

    What is safety…A morale and ethical responsibility of a company to avoid and remove hazards, and to implement, maintain and fortify training; perform tasks at work or home without injury or illness; inner comfort knowing fellow workers and your loved ones have taken all reasonable precautions.

    • Thanks James – the “warm, fuzzy feeling” huh? 🙂

      • kayakjim

        Warm and fuzzy only happens when the ‘acceptable risk’ employee has left our payroll, Dave ! I only hope they remember something positive regarding their personal safety while under our roof.

  • michael seager

    Interesting question Dave I would think a word like aware comes into it ,being aware of your enviroment and its risks and hazards and being able then to respond appropriately ,being aware when others may put themselves at risk and being able to prevent harm to them , switched on is another term that could be used .

    • Yeah aware is a good word – but even if everybody is aware there will still be different perceptions about what is safe and what is not, regardless of how many rules there are

  • Henrik

    To me safety is caring
    Be safe! Because I care about you

  • As per the Wikipedia definition, it is apparent that safety is a relative term: “Safety is the control of recognized hazards to achieve an acceptable level of risk”. ” Acceptable level of risk” varies from one individual or institution to another. There is also a possibility of some hazards not being recognizable, depending on the tools used to do the HIRA. That’s my take!

    • Very relative! I just bought a “Safety Razor” to try out – compared to the modern disposables it is not exactly safe but when compared to the old “cut throat” razors I can see how it may have got its name.

  • Wayne McCoy

    Safety means different things to different people in different circumstances. There is never a total absence of risk – there will always be an element of risk so therefore an acceptable level of risk. Again, horses for courses. Different things to different people in different circumstances.

    • Be a pretty boring life if that werent the case – which is exactly why prescriptive legislation and convoluted safety systems just dont work!

  • Les Henley

    Hi Dave,
    Is zero harm more tangible?
    Zero is an absolute value meaning the absence of …. in this case ‘harm’.
    I certainly realise that zero harm can be measured – up to the point where harm occurs.
    Then there can never be zero again!
    So the term is really meaningless unless there’s NEVER been any harm.
    And what if the harm is not recognised? As in the case of some psycho-social injuries? Or some adverse impact on a person’s psyche.

    • Noooooooo!!! of course not at all tangible to you and me but to some with a narrow mind it is!!!!

  • Les Henley

    Seriously though – don’t we need to look at the individual variants of the word:
    Safe – being free from risk of harm???
    Safety – a location or condition that is free from risk of harm????
    Safest – the condition of being as free from harm as possible. (As safe as possible)????
    As safe as reasonably practicable – as safe as we can make it given a range of defined constraints.
    NOTE – none of these definitions mean the same as the absence of risk.
    I personally do not believe that safety, or being safe, can be guaranteed 100% because we cannot control the behaviours of individual people or of groups.
    Human behaviour always being the uncontrollable variable and inidvidual tendencies to recognise and/or take more or less risk in a given scenario will always be the weakness.
    Not that I believe in blaming individuals for how they act, at least until we understand WHY they acted.
    A lack of knowledge or experience, to recognise risk or even to control a recognised risk, does not equate to an intention to be usafe.

    • Agreed mate, Safe(ty) will have a different meaning for all and require different factors to achieve – no “one size fits all” as many and the law would have us believe.

      I think the word(s) just rolls of the tongue, much like love, loved, loveable and loving

  • Richard Forster

    Good stuff Dave – do not bother looking for a definition in the legislation – I mean why would it be there?! I tell participants during training that as I go through life I am greatly reassured that I am still not sure what “safe” actually means but I have a fair idea, in a given situation, of what may be “safer.”

    • Yeah I think it is all about understanding risk and even that is open to a wide definition. The law cannot possibly define or suggest the safest way in every situation – that is what our brains, intuition and experience are for. The law sometimes creates or shifts the risk to someone or somewhere else.
      As I sit at my desk, I feel safe but have I completely understood all the risks I face, do I really need to or should I be happy with being resonanbly safe? If I over analyse it will that just place undue stress on my feeble brain and create a different type of safety concern – the health kind?

  • Les Henley

    Based on your article, and all the various use and abuse contexts – safety is whatever you ‘need’ it to be. (:p).

    • Great point Les – probably doesn’t need a definition – it is what is is, or ain’t what it isn’t. Is that the reason why some have attempted to replace it with “Zero Harm” – its something more tangible?

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