Language makes us engage with Health & Safety

How language makes us engage with H&S

This video was recently posted on Linkedin by an HSE Manager, asking “Dear HSE Colleagues, how could this have been prevented?”:

The video shows an overturned car in a field being flipped over and pulled back onto a track, by a tractor using what looks like lorry loading straps tied onto the front loader and the car chassis. The car is on a slope, and we watch as it flips over, almost tipping the tractor as it does so, and then the straps snap off the loader teeth and the car careens down the hill into a forest far below.

Viewed more than 78,000 times (and probably many more now), with 300+ comments, it was obviously posted for a bit of fun, but the video also has a serious point, which many commenters touched on.

They didn’t know what to do

Namely, that the car was probably being rescued by local farmers, who didn’t know what they were doing. While it might seem churlish to refuse a friendly offer of help, the owners of the car lost their vehicle, and there was significant risk to the onlookers’ safety, not to mention any poor people who may have been in the path of the runaway vehicle as it sped down the hill, or in the forest as it crashed into the trees below. Thankfully it didn’t look like anyone was hurt but, assuming the car needed to be removed from the forest, there would have been significant time and expense in doing so.

Ultimately, the HSE Manager’s conclusion is that the job should have been done by professionals, with the correct training and safety equipment, and proper planning.

Health and Safety process

And that is where the issue gets interesting. There is an instant divide in the comments between the H&S professionals commenting on the video, who of course endorse correct practice, and the ‘normal’ folk, who are sarcastic and amused and essentially dismissive. These comments in turn lead to some conflict, which is rather indicative of our day-to-day experiences: “don’t ask H&S dept!” versus “negative attitudes to H&S is what gets people hurt”.

It ultimately raises the question of how do we get our employees to actually engage with health and safety, rather than see it as an unnecessary annoyance? After all, if that situation with the tractor and the car had gone smoothly, everyone would be patting themselves on the back for a job well done and money well saved. The answer is of course education: raise awareness about the risks and how to avoid them.

Understanding the reason why

This is not big news; awareness is pretty much the fundamental pillar behind health and safety. At a very basic level for example, every single business in the UK, whether dealing with simple photocopying or hazardous environments such as oil rigs or foundries, has the obligatory H&S law poster on their walls, and we’re all well aware that there are safety rules we should follow for all circumstances. What I’m interested in here is how do we get people to actually understand and care why?

Rather than rolling our eyes at health and safety gone mad, do we know why we have to avoid cables being plugged in across a walkway, or why we have to wear ear plugs in a particular zone of the shop floor, or why we should wear the nitrile gloves rather than the cotton ones on the production line? Another comment in the above video holds the key: “H&S should be advising, monitoring, training and ensuring awareness, NOT telling people what to do”. If we simply have a rule we are told we must abide by, we are much more likely to resist it. If we are educated about the reason behind the rule and why it exists, we are more likely to follow it.

What kind of language are we using?

This leads to the question of how are we training and advising our employees about their safety? If the training is provided in document form, do they actually understand the language we are using? We need to think about the phrases and explanations we use, and resist using complicated structures or words, instead choosing simple, everyday language.

In this way we hope to keep people’s attention and make sure they fully understand what they’re reading. The Plain English Campaign addresses this very issue and, in fact, has produced a plain-English leaflet version of the H&S law poster. Notably, it uses many pictures to accompany and, in some cases, replace the text.

Are we even speaking the same language?

Vitally though, do our employees actually even understand the language we’re using at all? Official statistics show that in 2017, foreign-born people counted for at least 18% of the UK workforce, although the true number is expected to be higher. Of that number, a significant proportion (eg: 51% of UE8 nationals) were employed in the process, plant and machine operatives, or elementary occupations. Are we expecting our staff to understand complex safety issues in their second or even third language?

It is a proven fact that consumers are more likely to look for information and to buy online in their own language. This is therefore also true if we want our employees to engage with our information in the workplace. We must speak to them in their own language!

Are we expecting our staff to understand complex safety issues in their second or even third language?

Do we need translations?

One answer to this would be to translate our safety documentation into our employees’ languages.

Another is to decide whether or not our documents need to be documents at all. I started this blog piece by referring to a video. It was posted by an Arabic speaker in Oman, and has been shared and commented on by many non-native English speakers, showing exactly how much it resonated across cultures and languages, without the need for words.

How much of our own safety training could be presented in video form? Or, like the simple HSE leaflet, could we use pictures instead? Having watched that car rescue go wrong, I would be much less inclined now to accept the farmer’s friendly offer of help, and would instead think of the safety implications. Perhaps this video has actually imparted a valuable H&S message while masquerading as a funny clip?

Download our infographic:

5 ways language can positively affect H&S

The way we use language and communication in the workplace can greatly affect our level of engagement with Health & Safety. Our downloadable infographic looks at 5 ways we can identify and address this issue.

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