Key Takeaways

- The concepts encapsulated in terms that organizations use to convey their safety and health values and systems can be confounded, misunderstood and misapplied by conceptual noise from different sources. Conceptual noise is the ambiguity resulting from unclear, inconsistent, competing, or contradictory verbal and written communications.

- Organizations need to systematically identify, eliminate or control such conceptual noise sources to ensure workforce understanding, acceptance and usage.

- A safety terminology management program is the management system for achieving these objectives.

This article analyzes the reasons for mastering (i.e., systematically managing) an organization’s safety and health concepts and terms, and describes how it is to be accomplished. For brevity and readability, the term “occupational safety and health” has been shortened to simply “safety.” Thus, “safety management program” is used for “occupational health and safety program,” and “safety management system” is used for “occupational safety and health management system.”

Safety Terminology Management

All professions and organizations use specialized words and expressions to communicate conceptual meaning and context to stakeholders. These specialized designations are called terms. Terminology is the word designation for the collection and study of terms. Terminology management is the process of identifying, evaluating, organizing, communicating, and controlling terms and their specialized meanings. The process applied to an organization’s occupational safety and health concepts comprises its safety terminology management program.

Such a program is an essential, yet largely neglected, element of most safety management systems. Since safety and health terms are used daily and in numerous organizational documents, many safety leaders simply assume that their meanings are self-evident and are clearly understood by the workforce. Few leaders recognize the need to verify these assumptions, much less incorporate a safety terminology management program into their organization’s safety management system.

An organization’s specialized terms convey particular import and context for its safety culture and safety management system. No system (natural or created) can function effectively if its operating principles are confounded by unclear, inconsistent or mixed signals. The U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic is an example of how the conceptual noise from mixed signals can cause misperceptions and mistrust, leading to unwanted and unhealthy behaviors.

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