What’s in a name?


What’s in a name?

“’What’s in a name?’, as the great John Fatpimple said.”

Thank you Ronnie Barker – sorry I couldn’t resist it. The old ones are the best.

I think I may have written previously about my embarrassment at having to confess to people that I work in health and safety and the fact that when I did other jobs personal introduction were so much easier.

It’s the name isn’t it. Health and Safety. With the capitals. or ‘elf and safety as the tabloid press would prefer us to think of it. The very name grates on people. It’s like a red flag to a bull (incidentally cattle are colour blind). Or grit in the eye. An irritation.

Those of you studying for Unit A of the NEBOSH Diploma will recognise this as an issue closely associated with human factors in health and safety (element A7) and will also recognise the potential conflict with safety culture (element A6).

Part of the problem no doubt stems from all of the negative press associated with the phrase over the years; Europe, directives; Brussels euroocrats diluting our sovereignty, the human rights act, hard hats, risk assessments, banning conkers in schools. All of that nonsense. Most of which is just that; nonsense. Stuff that was made up or if not actually fabricated then certainly skewed to match a target audience’s prejudices. Again as a Unit A student many of these falsities and conflations should be ringing alarm bells since an ability to weed out misconceptions is an important aspect of creating a positive safety culture. Why else has the HSE spent time creating and promoting their monthly ‘myth busters’?

And part of the problems stems from the so called “compensation culture” that has grown up around health and safety. I use the expression “so called” because the Young report of several years ago was at pains to point out that the compensation culture is largely a thing of myth. And where not of myth, certainly within the grasp of the judiciary to address.

Just a thought here – I wonder how many Daily Mail readers who hate “bleedin ‘elf and safety” have put in claims for compensation over the years? Just a thought.

Risk assessment is another phrase that rankles. Again, loaded with negative connotations, but very few positives.

One way around this is to just soldier gamely on. In the high hazard industries they just get on with it. Everyone sees the point because everyone understands that without proper focus they get Piper Alpha. No explanation or apology is necessary.

But in other arenas the negatives can present a barrier that takes some getting over. So one alternative to soldiering onwards and upwards is to avoid the barrier entirely. Go around it. Catch them unawares. Change the label. Change the name.

“Risk management” is a popular choice. Risk management is a solid, reliable name. People usually know what it means. It’s a straightforward title that doesn’t have any negative baggage associated with it. You NEBOSH Diploma Unit A students out these know that the phrase risk management has a broader meaning than health and safety management in the strict sense. But the phrase can be adapted and adopted as you see fit. Hijacked even.

I met a student a few years ago who pointed this out to me. No names, no pack-drill. He was a very no-nonsense guy who managed people who dealt with volatile and potentially life threatening situations at work.

“I don’t talk about health and safety at work” he said “and I don’t use the phrase risk assessment.”

“Soon as you use those words peoples’ eye glaze over and you’ve lost them.”

“I work in risk management and I teach them risk management.”

“Everyone can buy into that.

They can’t eliminate risk in their line of work.

Soon as you mention risk assessment they start wittering on about staplers in the office and rubbish like that.

They don’t understand it, they don’t know what it means; but they would never admit that because they’ve read the newspapers and spent too much time listening to Jeremy Clarkson.

So I call it risk management. They get that and there aren’t any negatives.”


Jim Phelpstead

Jim Phelpstead

Jim Phelpstead BSc, PhD, CMIOSH

Working in health and safety for 18 years Jim is a long-standing RRC Associate Tutor, who loves the great outdoors.