“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.” George Orwell, 1984
We’ve all done it. We’re talking about something terrible and rather than calling it what it is, we choose words that are softer, less harsh. Or we call it something that completely hides our meaning. Instead of talking about an explosion, we use a term like “rapid unscheduled disassembly.” We mince words.
Those that know what we are talking about smile at our clever use of doublespeak. Those that don’t know what we are talking about struggle to give meaning to otherwise meaningless words. We talk about devastating impacts, but hide our meaning behind euphemisms and understatements. It doesn’t make the impacts any less devastating, but it does make us less concerned.
It seems that we are getting better at hiding our meaning.
Perhaps it is because we listen to politicians and pundits, advertisers and advocates, all who have become quite practiced at hiding their real meaning, their real intent. If ever there was a time and place to be frank about our meanings, though, it is when we are discussing the impacts of catastrophic events.
Our Lawyers Made Us Do It
We’ve all heard it: “We can’t talk about it—our lawyers won’t let us.” Lawyers give legal advice, advice designed to reduce or avoid legal liability for things have happened or may happen. They don’t give safety advice, advice about how to reduce the likelihood of something terrible happening. Their starting point is that something terrible has already happened and their advice is designed to help us avoid responsibility and blame for that terrible thing.
As safety professionals, we don’t give legal advice. We give safety advice, with our starting point being that we want to keep terrible things from happening again. We know that we cannot undo what has already happened, so blame is irrelevant, but that what can we do is to keep this terrible thing, or something like it, from happening again.
Sure, the Press is Inflammatory
We’ve also listened to press accounts of uncontrolled releases of material and energy. All chemicals are “toxic” chemicals. All releases of energy are “blasts” or “explosions”. Consider the video of the combustible dust cloud fire that went viral as a “dust explosion”, despite the complete absence of shock wave or blast damage. The media sell news by selling conflict and fear. So, there is a temptation to act as a counterweight, to understate events and impacts to compensate the overstatements we know are going to come from an inflammatory press.
Again, our role as safety professionals is not to manage public relations. Our role is to identify the terrible things that can happen and then to identify appropriate measures to keep these terrible things from happening again.
Fires, Explosions, and Toxic Releases
When we mince words, we hide our meaning. When we hide our meaning, we make it less likely that we will identify hazards, recognize them as serious, and take the appropriate measures to reduce their risk.
We’ve all done it. We’ve said, “Uncontained combustion” when we meant fire and “uncontrolled decomposition” when we meant explosion. We’ve called a release to the environment a “loss of containment”. We’ve called the explosion of a piece of equipment a “catastrophic tank failure”, a “catastrophic pump failure”, or a “catastrophic reactor failure”. Perhaps you have never referred to a fire as an “oxidation event” or referred to an explosion as an “overpressure event”, but you have heard these phrases used by others.
It’s not just the events that we obscure, but their impacts. The severe difficulty breathing caused by a release may be called “respiratory distress” (which still sounds bad) or it may be referred to as an “unpleasant odor”. It is very hard to take an “unpleasant odor” very seriously, because “unpleasant” is easily interpreted as a matter of personal opinion and preference.
Ultimately, the impact of gravest concern is death. The death of workers and the death of members of the public. Death is something everyone has trouble talking about, and so there are many euphemisms. Loved ones don’t die, they pass away. Soldiers don’t die, they are casualties. Workers aren’t killed, they are fatalities. We instinctively seek to soften the harshness of “death”. In many cases, we use synonyms that are as well defined as the term “death”. The term is softer, but no less meaningful. In some cases, though, we seek to hide the meaning. “Life-threatening injury” for instance, is a term that sounds serious, but not as serious as “death”. A victim might recover from a life-threatening injury, but no one recovers from death. Some of the euphemisms that we have adopted do not simply soften the harshness of the term, but disguise it completely.
Bad for Safety
Softening the harshness of our terminology is bad for safety. Using terminology that disguises hazardous events and impacts is even worse for safety. Telling a worker that it is important to do a certain thing “or else you may suffer a life-threatening injury” is helpful, but is not nearly as effective as saying “or else you will die.”
Say What You Mean
As you go about your job of making your workplace a safer place, consider the words you use and the words you hear others use. Are they clarifying meaning or hiding meaning? Lawyers have their jobs to do and so do public relations consultants. Certainly, listen to their advice and weigh it. Then do what you need to do make your workplace safer. Let your meaning be clear and insist that others be clear as well. When it comes to health and safety—to the lives of the people with whom you work—don’t mince words.