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The Power of Words: Ramifications for Occupational Health and Safety

July 28, 2020
Words are powerful. How can a safety professional use them for worker engagement?

Words are magical in the way they affect the minds of those who use them.... Words have power to mold men’s thinking, to canalize their feelings, to direct their willing and acting.

The above quote from Aldous Huxley’s “Words and Their Meanings” reflects the power of words to influence our feelings, expectations, attitudes, and behaviors. When people use expressions like, “Say that enough times and you’ll start to believe it,” “Can’t I talk you into it,” or “Do as I say, not as I do” they are acknowledging the influence of words on behavior.

The replies, “What good is it” to the friendly “Good morning,” and the assertion “It’s a pain in the neck” to the question, “How is your job?” not only reflect a person’s feeling or attitude at the time; but these sorts of negative reactions can influence negative feelings of both the deliverer and the recipient of such words. Years ago, when my two daughters discussed horse manure at the dinner table, I would lose my appetite for the food before me. Similarly, using negative, uninspiring words to describe everyday events or ourselves can contribute to losing our appetite (or passion) for life.

What does all of this have to do with occupational health and safety? I propose that certain words we commonly use can contribute to debilitating and counterproductive perceptions or attitudes regarding occupational health and safety. Moreover, certain expressions used frequently in the health and safety domain can actually reduce people’s engagement in safety-related efforts. Using many of these words has become habitual and we are often unaware of how our verbal behavior contributes to less-than-optimal commitment to health, safety, and human welfare. This article pinpoints a few of the more commonly used words in the health and safety field that we should consider eliminating from our everyday language, and suggests some “healthy” alternatives.

From “Accident” to “Injury”

When a young boy soils his pants (i.e., an “Inside job”), we label the event an “accident,” implying the occurrence of a chance event with no one to blame– “He just couldn’t help it.” Perhaps this inference is warranted in this case, but many other situations referred to as “accidental” did not have to happen. Workplace “accidents” are usually unintentional, of course, but are they truly chance occurrences? Are there specific controllable factors (e.g., changes in the environment, behavior, and/or attitudes) that can prevent various “accidents”? Answering “yes” to these two questions implies “accident” is the wrong word to use when referring to unintentional injuries. Continuing to use this term in our culture can reduce the number of people who will answer “yes” to those questions with personal conviction. We need to use words that support the belief and expectation that various factors can be controlled in order to prevent unintentional injuries at work, at home, and throughout the community at large

Over recent years, the term “incident” has been substituted for “accident,” but an incident can be intentional. For example, people refer to the tragic shooting of 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, of which I am all too familiar, as an unfortunate “incident.”  Why not tell it like it is? It’s not a traffic “accident,” it’s a vehicle crash or collision. It’s not a workplace “accident,” but an occupational injury or fatality that can be prevented with strategic safety-related improvements in environmental, behavioral, and management-system factors.

From Occupant Restraints to Safety Belts

For years, many transportation and safety professionals have used the terms “occupant restraints” and “child restraints” for vehicle safety belts and child safety seats, respectively. Not only do those terms imply discomfort and lack of personal control, they fail to convey the invaluable function of these devices.

Although “seatbelt” is better than “occupant restraint,” this popular term is not adequate because it does not describe the device–neither in function nor in appearance. Vehicle safety belts were once only lap belts and now they are combination lap-and-shoulder belts. Yet the term “seatbelt” is still the most common word used to refer to both of these devices. We need to get into the habit of saying “safety belt” and “child safety seat.” Why, because then we will be conveying the critical life-saving function of these devices, and thereby support their consistent use. Relatedly, should we say “air bag” or “safety cushion”?

From Priority to Value

From flight attendant announcements on airplanes to TV commercials, we frequently hear the popular slogan: “Safety is our top priority.” What does such language mean? Our everyday experiences with “priorities” teach us that priorities change—they come and go. A priority today might not be a priority tomorrow. Depending upon the demands of the moment, we often shift our focus from one top priority to another. Do we really want to associate safety with such a term?

For many years, I have advocated talking about safety as a “value”—an inherent principle or ideal associated with every priority, every day, and in every way. Safety should be a “value” that employees bring to every job, regardless of the ongoing priorities or task requirements. A safety mission statement should refer to safety as a “value” rather than a “priority.”

Autonomy and Self-Accountability

Substantial research in psychological science has demonstrated that the perception of personal choice enhances self-motivation or self-accountability, and our everyday experiences verify this evidence-based human dynamic. Consider, for example, how certain words from others or said to ourselves (as in self-talk) reflect external control versus internal choice, and thereby imply other-directed versus self-directed behavior. In other words, which word choice would you prefer to use and receive?

Did you receive and perceive that assignment as a “requirement” or as an “opportunity”?

Would you rather be asked to “change” or “improve” your behavior?

Are your behaviors influenced by “peer pressure” or “peer support”?

Was that safety rule presented as a “mandate” or an “expectation”?

Were you “trained” or “coached” to perform that job safely?

Should we refer to safety professionals as “loss-control managers” or “safety-achievement facilitators”?

Should we discuss the results of a safety audit as “meeting OSHA standards” or “fulfilling our corporate mission”?

Does your workplace have a “safety compliance” or a “safety achievement” task force?

Should we acknowledge employees for working “30 days without an injury” or for working “30 safe days”?

When attending a group meeting or a teaching/learning session do you say to yourself, “I’ve got to do this” or “I get to do this”?

Finally, do you wake up to an “alarm clock” or an “opportunity clock”?

COVID-19 Language

Even some critical words used currently and frequently to discuss the prevention of the global coronavirus are misleading and should be improved. Specifically, we are advised (or mandated) to keep a six-foot “social” distance from others when in public settings. Is “social” the most appropriate word to use in this context? Obviously, the word “social” does not imply a particular physical distance, but rather reflects an interpersonal connection or companionship a person experiences with one or more other individuals, independent of physical distance. Some people do use the more appropriate term—six-foot “physical” distance, but “social” seems to be the more popular adjective used these days.

What about those facemasks we are asked to wear in public places? This disease-prevention device is consistently labeled PPE for “personal protective equipment.” The misleading word here is “personal.”  In the workplace, employees do wear PPE for personal protection, but the primary purpose of the COVID-19 facemask is to protect others from the spread of this deadly virus. Thus, the first “P” of PPE should represent “public,” making PPE signify “public protective equipment.” In this way, wearing a facemask is communicated as protecting others more than ourselves, with such behavior portrayed as more selfless than selfish—as actively caring for people (AC4P) behavior.

This is obviously a limited list of word substitutions to consider, but I hope the message is clear. Simple word usage can affect both attitude and behavior. Considering the ramifications of using the various word substitutions suggested here can be a useful personal or group exercise. Adding alternatives to this list would be even more beneficial. However, understanding and appreciating critical relations between our words, attitudes, and deeds is only half the “battle.” We need to improve our everyday verbal habits, but that is easier said than done.

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