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Do Safety Catch Phrases Work?

March 29, 2017

safety-phrases.pngYou see so much of it you forget it’s there. The signage with safety phrases, clichés, and platitudes. If you work at an industrial job-site then you’ve probably seen all the variations. The challenge to personal commitment

  • Stand up for safety

  • Safety starts with me

  • Safety: first, last, & always


  • Be aware take care

  • Accident Prevention: Your #1 intention

  • Safety rules are your best tools

the clever (or corny) wordplays…

  • When you gamble on safety, you bet your life

  • Hearing protection is a sound investment

  • Vision Protection: all in favor say “eye!”

and I personally enjoy the visually evocative or slightly sinister phrases…

  • A harness is better than a hearse

  • Guard against man eating machines

  • Watch your step, it could be your last

After reading this you may be surprised at how many safety phrases you suddenly notice in your worksite. They’re everywhere. Do they work? Do the safety professionals that hang these signs and mouth these phrases really believe they are influencing their employees’ behaviors? Does publicly posting safety catch phrases actually make people work safer?

It almost seems silly. So… I can simply print up a lot of signs with rhyming phrases and people will just start working safer? A cynic may argue that organizations are just wallpapering over their true safety culture with highly visible, posted catch phrases. They are just words. Maybe, but research suggests there might be something to it. A recent collection of studies demonstrates a link between so called priming words and human behavior.

Multiple studies have shown that exposing persons to words related to achievement (e.g. attain, win, achieve) increases a person’s persistence and performance on a challenging task or goal. For example, one study used a charitable fund raising call center as a laboratory. At the start of shifts, all workers were given talking points to communicate to potential donors on their outbound solicitation calls. One group was given the talking points on a plain sheet of paper. The other group was provided identical talking points, but the information was printed on a sheet of paper that also had a picture of a runner winning a race. This group was primed with an image associated with achievement and perseverance. The primed group outraised the control group by 60%. Maybe the makers of those inspirational posters hanging in corporate hallways are onto something!

In a safety context, we can’t quantify the benefit from hanging safety posters in the workplace. However, it requires little effort and may prime your coworkers to work safer – go ahead and do it. I’ve worked with companies that are big believers in the power of words. A few weeks ago I was at a facility that has a monthly safety phrase contest. Employees create their own safety phrase and the safety council chooses the winning phrase. The phrase gets placed on the marquee you see driving into the facility and the employee gets recognition and small prize. I’ve seen several companies that do something similar. I like this approach because it makes safety personal for their employees. Employees that write their own safety phrase are priming themselves to think and work safer. The words are personal, relevant, and therefore impactful. We can’t yet determine how much these efforts impact workplace behavior, but I’m willing to wager a person won’t violate their personal safety phrase when its visible to all coworkers.

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Brian Dishman Brian Dishman is a Senior Consultant at PSI. He educates safety leaders on the internal factors that impact employee safety. Brian focuses on safety leadership, safety culture development, and the psychology of safety.