Words have power. We confirm that every day when we examine why people do what they do. Communication is often the root cause of accidents, particularly how the receiver interprets what he or she hears. That communication is not always something said in the moments before an incident; it can occur days, weeks or months in advance. I have discussed this issue with behaviorists on a number of occasions, and I am convinced that some of the words I – and many others – have repeatedly heard over the years have served to limit our success in the quest for a strong, positive safety culture.
The real problem is that what we say to soften our approach and encourage safe work has the exact opposite effect of our intention. Many of us – and yes, I have done it, too – don't want to be criticized or worse when we ask crews to do something differently. Sometimes we think our request is going to sound accusatory or like an insult to their professional skill level. Other times we know from past experience that the issue that needs to be addressed is contentious. Maybe we worry that our message is going to be challenged, or perhaps we are not confident in our delivery. There are any number of reasons, but it boils down to this: Safety professionals are human, and humans don't want to be challenged or rejected. Therein, as they say, lies the problem.