“Conceptual noise” is the ambiguity created by unclear, inconsistent, competing, or contradictory verbal and written communications, writes career safety and health professional Herman Woessner, CSP, CPEA, in the February 2022 issue of Professional Safety.
Many safety leaders assume the meanings of their words — especially basic ones like “risk” and “hazard” — are self-evident and, therefore, understood.
“Few recognize the need to verify these assumptions, much less incorporate a safety terminology management program into their organization’s safety management system,” Woessner says.
But such a program can help eliminate conceptual noise, ensuring workers have an understanding and acceptance of these terms to adapt the safety policies, procedures and programs on which they are built. Implementing the ANSI/ASSP/ISO 45001-2018 international consensus standard on occupational health and safety management systems is a great place to start.
Using ISO 45001 Can Help You Communicate Safety Terminology
Besides providing system specifications, management requirements, performance guidance and recommendations for continual system improvements, ISO 45001 includes references to safety terminology databases and is a source for common terms and definitions used by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).
While ISO 45001 doesn’t directly call for organizations to establish a safety terminology management program, section 7.4 directs organizations to “establish, implement and maintain the process(es) needed for the internal and external communications relevant to the [occupational health and safety] management system.”
In addition, organizations must ensure that safety information is reliable and communicated consistently.
“The standard developers clearly recognized the importance of defining key terms and concepts to ensure effective occupational health and safety management system communications,” Woessner writes.
6 Ways to Reduce Conceptual Noise and Improve Safety Communication
To establish a safety terminology management system, Woessner recommends taking these six steps.
- Define terms where definitions compete or conflict with everyday use.
People are familiar with many safety terms from personal use outside the workplace. But these everyday definitions often compete or conflict with how these terms apply in the workplace.
The term “accident” is a prime example. ISO 45001 says the term is used to indicate “an incident where injury or ill health occurs.” But Merriam-Webster defines it as an “unforeseen and unplanned event or circumstance” or “unfortunate event resulting especially from carelessness or ignorance.”
Most safety professionals don’t attribute all incidents to carelessness or ignorance, or even view them as unforeseen. Being aware of terms workers might conflate with safety concepts is essential to eliminate this source of conceptual noise.
- Create clarity where complexity and variance arise.
Terms like “hazard,” “risk” and “safe” introduce complexity and variance in safety communication. The meanings of these terms vary among employers, professions and employers — even publishers of dictionaries. In ISO 45001, the definitions are abstract and require extensive notes to clarify their meanings, Woessner explains.
“If trained professionals struggle to explain the meanings of core safety and health terms that they routinely use, imagine how likely it would be for untrained employees who are not safety specialists to be confused about them, especially those with literacy and language difficulties,” Woessner writes.
Clarifying these terms and creating trust within teams is key.
- Assess worker literacy and languages.
Every safety terminology management program should include a plan-do-check-act process (defined in ISO 45001) to accomplish the following objectives:
- Identify employees for whom English is not a primary language and all primary languages spoken or read by the workforce.
- Assess employee literacy levels and instruction requirements.
- Procure qualified trainers, translators and training materials.
- Evaluate the quality and consistency of safety and health training and communications.
- Locate and correct misinterpreted and misused safety concepts.
- Carefully manage the use of abbreviations and acronyms.
Acronyms are difficult to decipher, so it’s best to minimize their use. If you use them, define each one on first use and add the acronym in uppercase in parentheses afterward. For example, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
- Clarify key terms to improve job hazard or safety analysis.
The terms “hazard,” “at-risk” and “risk” are key concepts within a job hazard analysis (JHA) or job safety analysis (JSA), yet they are imprecisely defined and commonly misunderstood — particularly the word “hazard.”
OSHA defines “hazard” as “the potential for harm,” but that leaves many workers confusing hazards with incident consequences. For example, the term “fire,” often found on JSA forms, can designate a hazard, type of hazard or consequence.
“If not eliminated, the conceptual noise inherent in the term ‘hazard’ can result (and has resulted) in failure to identify specific task-step hazards and their respective hazard control measures,” Woessner says.
By better defining this term in a way that workers can understand, analyses become infinitely more helpful in improving safety.
- Include an incident causation philosophy.
An effective safety management system and safety culture depend on the articulation of core beliefs, values, principles and norms. Safety professionals implementing ISO 45001 can go a step further and define a coherent incident causation philosophy, a set of beliefs and values that explain why these events occur and how to understand their root causes.
This will improve the effectiveness of safety policies, programs and processes based on organizational beliefs.
“An organization that does not recognize the need to commit resources to clearly and consistently define its safety and health terms and specialized concepts and to validate their understanding and usage cannot be certain that conceptual noise will not enter the mindset of employees,” Woessner writes.
But knowing this noise exists can help you develop a safety terminology management program based on ISO 45001 that improves communication and processes.
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