Stop Calling It A Safety Incident!

Sticks and stones are painful, but WORDS are deadly too.

I’ll admit I’m a little more sensitive to word choices than most. Your average Joe doesn’t obsess about the use of unnecessary adverbs or weigh in on the occasional Oxford Comma debate. I get it, writer’s are troubled, stuck in our heads, and overly critical of sentence structure. But maybe some people should take a page from my book (that requires buying a copy… jus sayin’). Maybe if people thought about the message their words send, their organizations would perform better.

I speak of course of everyone’s favorite term: SAFETY INCIDENT.

Here I am! Rock me like a… Scorpion?

My wife is now sick of me singing that song to remind her of a tragic event that occurred at our house a few weeks ago. You’ll see why.

That morning the house was bustling and dis-functionally preparing for the day as usual. The kids were yelling about brushing their teeth, the babysitter was running late, I was pacing around like a crazy person getting ready for a very important phone call, and then the power went out. In the two years that we’ve lived in our house not so much as a GFCI has tripped, but the power is a little wonky now and then.

Regardless of the reliability of our house’s wiring, my wife an I always go to the garage to check the breakers when there’s an outage. Then one of us usually takes a stroll down our (short) driveway to waive at the neighbors who are also emerging to verify it isn’t just their house. But this time things were different.

Having braved the five-foot trek to the box barefoot, my wife reached up for the latch and… BAM! The scorpion she had stepped on whipped it’s tail in between here two naked feet, stinging them both. Then it laughed at her, pointed it’s one free claw at her and said “My name is Inigo Scortoya, you poisoned my eggs, suck on this!

Well. Probably not. But that’s how it happened in my head. One thing I know for certain, however, is that she did not refer to the event as a “SAFETY INCIDENT.” I think her exact words were: “THAT M0#!&$@#ER STUNG BOTH OF MY F#$@*&^G FEET!!!

Now let’s discuss the supraspinatus

About two months ago I was hanging out in the front yard with my daughter. She rides her Razor scooter like a boss and wanted me to join in. Reluctantly I hopped on my son’s Razor, wished adieu to my “Dorito Knees,” and tried to keep pace. Which I did… Until I didn’t.

The funny thing about these little death blades is that they don’t like cracks. They are particularly limited when their wheels happen to glide perfectly into one as if the cement masons had designed their expansion joints with children’s scooters in mind. They would have to have been evil masons, but nonetheless, one has to wonder.

In the split second it took for me+Razor to meet the laws of physics head on, my life flashed before my eyes. Then every bit of speed, momentum, and mass I had concentrated itself in my right shoulder (the rotator cuff to be exact) as I came to an abrupt halt. After nearly 24 years of heavy weight lifting and physical activity, a child’s toy took me out of commission. Thankfully it won’t require surgery (MRI indicated only a partial tear).

As you can most likely guess. I don’t refer to that INJURY as a SAFETY INCIDENT. It’s an injury. And for the record, I was “safe” the whole time, helmet included.

Here’s where I need help

I don’t know how to solve this problem, but I know it’s one we need to solve. Safety has been plagued by bad slogans and misrepresentation for decades. I believe the core of that problem is the language we use.

Doesn’t calling an injury a “safety incident” de-humanize it?

Doesn’t calling a near miss a “safety incident” shift responsibility from those who have control (workers/supervisors) to those who merely have influence (safety)?

Don’t our workers deserve more care than a phone call to the safety guy because the boss has more important things to deal with?

I think so. But I need your help to solve the problem. What could you do differently at your worksite to make this change happen?

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3 Replies to “Stop Calling It A Safety Incident!”

  1. You are an excellent storyteller! You lived to tell your take of woe, Hope your better half is progressing nicely ?

  2. I completely agree. It seems to be common for the safety incident to become the safety persons problem to fix followed by the team not supporting the change needed to prevent the same safety incident next time. The next step to change current thinking is to promote safety as a team sport and make the process for reporting and investigating easy for the team to follow.

  3. You can change the world with words – we all know a favorite speech that motivated us – there was always hope of a future that we could buy into there – it is our nature to buy into a positive – so why is there a problem with “incident and near miss reporting” if it is a positive? I think it is the negative aspect of the words (and the negative response of an “investigation” it brings) as you say – so – a thank you for highlighting an improvement and making your team safer may get more of the same things fixed. Provided stuff gets fixed! Just by changing the words and the response to what essentially is the same thing!! Counting “problems fixed” still has a negative, but is balanced, and you can always ask people to “please find and fix more problems”. This may be short term as people find ways to fudge “reporting” over time – but a step in the right direction to kick start a different way of talking and shifting the ownership of “safety incidents”.
    I agree with you.

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