Discourse Analysis, Safety Alerts and Safety Boards

Discourse Analysis, Safety Alerts and Safety Boards


There’s nothing quite like the tokenistic display of a safety alert. Go into any organization and see what’s on the safety notice board, observe the wall paper and then contemplate why people don’t take safety seriously. It’s like the safety industry has taken in all that is necessary for motivation, learning, visual learning, graphics and perception and then chosen to ignore it.

Discourse Analysis is a form of analysis that interrogates power in text. Discourse Analysis looks for ‘codes’ hidden in a simple cognitive reading and finds meaning in those codes that speak about the methodology (ideology) of the text. It is naïve to think that text is objective and doesn’t carry the biases of the writer and their economic, political and philosophical foundations. There is no such thing as neutral text and to think so is pure mythology. Discourse Analysis comes from a broad Transdisciplinary base (sociology, philosophy, anthropology, social psychology, linguistics, history of mentalities, semiotics and poetics). You can learn about Discourse Analysis here:

Of course, the study of Discourse Analysis cannot be found in any safety curriculum


So, let’s return to that safety board and explore the core messaging in safety.

  1. The first thing that stands out is the repetitive message that ‘safety is about telling about objects’.
  2. The key messaging on safety boards is about ‘hazards’ (objects) and ‘controls’.
  3. Then there are the compulsory pinups of mistakes, accidents and often photoshopped images. Safety is about all that goes wrong.
  4. We most often see the colours of red on yellow or black on yellow to convey (https://www.verywellmind.com/color-psychology-2795824) power, authority and fear. None of which is conducive to learning or motivation. And why are safety boards maintained anyway? What is their purpose? What is their design? Does a person qualified in semiotics and learning maintain it?
  5. When we analyse the ‘tone’ of the safety alerts we never see the words ‘person’, ‘learning’ or language associated with care or helping. The message is often ‘look at what this clown did, don’t be like this clown’.
  6. And after you have read one of these ‘alerts’ you are none the wiser as they never speak about: cultural context, heuristics on site, influences on decision making, complexity in trade-offs and by-products, traditions, ethics, personhood, language on site, critical risks, collective unconscious, visual or special literacies, semiotics, expected cognitions, routine-habits, temperaments required in context or learning modalities.
  7. With none of this explored the basic message is about policing and blame.
  8. The key message that is also common is the old James Reason safety gems of: errors, violations and inattention. This is safety comfort language but it offers no explanation of decision making.
  9. Then there is the focus on engineering-objects and lectures on engineering, the perfect turn off for anyone interested in why people do what they do.
  10. We finally see some stock posters that reinforce the nonsense of ‘safety is a choice you make’ and ‘all accidents are preventable’.

This is the Discourse of the common safety board, most often does more harm than good. If you want to use a safety board and make it effective then perhaps use the above as a checklist and maybe someone might look at it and learn something one day.

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