How to Use the Right Language to Promote Safety

November 07, 2019

“I said, ‘Do you speak-a my language?’
He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich”
~Men at Work – “Down Under”

Whether EHS managers or safety professionals like it or not, they have to “sell” safety. They need to convince their colleagues to adopt a safety mindset and the right behaviors.

Using the right “language” or speaking style can make a big difference. Is there advice that can help you better promote safety?

The topic was addressed at the 2019 IOSH conference that took place in September in Birmingham, UK.

Zoe Davies, Senior Health & Safety Advisor at IMG spoke about “watching our language” when it comes to talking about workplace safety. Her presentation was not about being cautious and avoiding offending people.

Rather, it was about how safety professionals should adapt their language to sell safety and persuade people. Davies stressed that what is said and how it is said are the biggest influencers of safety and health culture in an organization.

In her presentation, she provided tips on how to convince people that they need safety and health, and that safety is something they should “buy.”

Asking Questions to Better Listen

First, people tend to buy things from people that they know and like. This means that it’s crucial to build relationships with workers in your organization because these personal relationships will make it easier for them to “buy” into safety.

Second, Davies described an approach called “question-based selling”. In this approach, instead of trying to overload a description of a product or service into a 1-minute elevator speech, you ask customers a series of questions to understand their perspectives and their individual needs.

For example, when selling a smartphone, the questions would look like this: “Which features of your current phone are you dissatisfied with?”, “What do you like about your mobile service?”, “How do you use your smartphone?”

Regarding safety, the questions that could be part of this method include:

  • Do you have what you need to perform your job safely and effectively?
  • What do you do to ensure your safety and the safety of your colleagues?
  • Who or what inspires you to stay safe on the job?

Asking such questions and listening to and following up on the answers can help convince workers of the importance of safety and health. It can also show them that they play an active role in their safety and the safety of others.

Third, Davies highlighted the importance of removing language barriers when it comes to safety. For example, instead of calling something a “risk assessment” with a lot of complicated terms around compliance, severity, control measures, processes and mitigation, she suggested developing a questionnaire that accomplishes the same task as a risk assessment.

The questionnaire can be designed with more common, everyday language with terms such as planning, predictors, prevention, check-ups, and keeping records.

In conclusion, here are the main lessons from Davies’s presentation:

  • Know your “clients”. Ask them questions to understand their needs and concerns about safety, and take appropriate action.
  • Remove language barriers. Describe safety and safety activities in simple, everyday language so that everyone can relate to and understand it.
  • Get something sold to you, then analyze why the technique worked. Use these lessons to sell ideas to others.

Adapting language and communicating more effectively can help safety leaders and professionals be more effective and improve safety performance and culture.

Also, check out our post on how to promote a global safety culture across local cultures. Learn about the importance of being aware of cultural differences in communication and negotiating styles.



Jean-Grégoire Manoukian

Content Thought Leader