Linguistics, Language and Meaning in Risk
When we study Linguistics in SPoR (https://cllr.com.au/product/linguistics-flyer-unit-21/ ) we look at language, the acquisition of language and the purpose of language. Language is the bedrock of culture in all its forms: spoken, written, unwritten, visual, semiotic, words, discursive, verbal, gestural, conscious, unconscious, as grammar, code, mimetics, metaphor, musically, poetically, syntax and embodied.
If your idea of culture doesn’t include specific focus on Linguistics, you’re not discussing culture. When risk and safety uses the word ‘culture’ it most often it is a reference to behaviourism or systems. One of the things risk and safety is very poor at is its use of language.
As an educative study just explore the way risk and safety uses language and turns words into meaningless gobbledygook. For example, zero. Only this industry seems able to grab a word like ‘zero’ and argue that it doesn’t mean zero. Zero of course means infinity and nothing. It is a place holder created by mathematicians and then a number representing the average of -1 and 1 (https://archive.org/details/nothingthatisnat0000kapl ). Yet it is common in risk and safety to read mantras of ‘beyond zero’ (https://www.jacobs.com/newsroom/news/beyondzero-2025-and-beyond), ‘believe the impossible’ (https://www.consultdss.com/belief-in-the-impossible/ ), zero culture (https://trucesoftware.com/blog/zero-incident-culture-a-proactive-approach-to-safety/ ), ‘zero mindset’ (https://www.ecompliance.com/blog/target-zero/ ), philosophy (https://www.ishn.com/articles/104001-how-one-company-wins-at-safety-with-a-zero-harm-philosophy ) and religion (https://safetyrisk.net/the-spirit-of-zero/ ).
What we see in the examples above is an industry that doesn’t know what to do with language and so thinks it can make language mean whatever it wants. So, the idea of zero in safety started as an injury metric, it quickly became a goal, then evolved to become a symbol for a ‘mindset’ (ideology), a culture, a philosophy and eventually a religion. How did it evolve so quickly to this state? Through the application of binary opposition logic (https://safetyrisk.net/binary-opposites-and-safety-goal-strategy/; https://safetyrisk.net/the-binary-barnacle/; https://safetyrisk.net/asking-the-wrong-questions/ ) of an absolute applied to fallible persons.
The evolution of the use of the language of ‘zero’ is evidence of a poorly educated industry that is yet to discover a mature sense of what to do with fallibility (https://www.humandymensions.com/product/fallibility-risk-living-uncertainty/). What we end up with is an industry that thinks it is intelligent by speaking nonsense to people (https://safetyrisk.net/talking-zero-nonsense-to-people/; https://safetyrisk.net/keep-counting-every-time-you-dont-achieve-your-goal-thats-professional/ ).
If the best question you can think of is: ‘how many people do you want injured today?’ you really need to graduate beyond kindergarten. The best way to respond to such a dumb question is with: ‘why do you ask binary loaded questions that presuppose a numerical answer?’ Why do you allow a numerical idea to drive the way you define risk and safety? Or ‘Why do you think that injury is evidence of non-safety?’
We see similar naïve thinking about language in the AIHS BoK Chapter on ethics that supposes that the words ‘morality’ and ‘ethics’ are interchangeable. Words have meaning in themselves and despite what one would like to believe, ethics and morality are not the same word, they don’t concern the same thing. Similarly, language such as ‘persons’ and ‘humans’ are unique and have quite distinct and separate meaning.