As I mentioned in my initial blog post last month, my plan for this particular post is to list and discuss my definitions for five key terms related to occupational safety and health. Laying out these five definitions will help make sure we are all on the same page when we refer to these terms in future blog posts and comments. But more importantly, they give us an indication to how we can work towards implementing, managing, and/or improving our safety programs using OSHA’s Recommended Practices for Safety and Health Programs.

While you may assume (correctly) that the term “Safety” is one of the terms to be defined, I believe we must define the four other key terms first, because all of them dovetail into my definition of safety. So here are my definitions of these key terms:

Key Term #1

Injury : Physical harm or damage to a worker. (The degree of an injury can vary, from slight to severe – even fatal, so we will include all types of injuries in this definition. And for now, we will also include work-induced illnesses in this general definition.)

Key Term #2

Accident : An unwanted incident that happens unexpectedly or unintentionally. (In life, not all accidents are unwanted; you could accidentally circle the wrong numbers on your lottery ticket, but win. For purposes of this blog, however, accidents are considered unwanted events. Also, keep in mind that most accidents that occur in the workplace will NOT result in injury to a worker; for example, someone may “accidentally” stumble over a cord laying on a walkway but quickly recover their balance and avoid a potentially injurious fall.)

Key Term #3

Hazard : Characteristic of an object, or the action or inaction of a person, that can reasonably be expected to cause harm or damage to a worker. (The sharp edge of a blade is a physical hazard, as is a bucket full of Muriatic acid. A person jumping from an eight foot high platform to the ground below is also a hazard (a hazardous action), as would be someone neglecting to inspect their respiratory protection gear before each use.)

Key Term #4

Risk : Exposure to a hazard. (The level of risk can vary, ranging from zero risk up to an absolute risk, or somewhere between.)

Now, before we get to my definition for “Safety”, here is why I listed these other key definitions first. Think about this; when do we all stop what we are doing and really focus on “safety”? And I’m not talking about just the safety manager – I’m talking about everyone in the organization suddenly making “safety” their highest priority. That usually does not occur until AFTER someone has been seriously injured. And it’s a shame, because there are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of hazards present in the workplace every day, yet we show relatively little concern to proactively seek out and eliminate them or make sure they are under control on a day-to-day basis. And this lack of concern about seeking out and addressing hazards before someone is injured should not be surprising because on most days in most workplaces, absolutely no one experiences an accident. And even when someone does have an accident, most of the time that accident does not result in an injury. And even when an injury does occur, most times they are not severe (think a slight paper cut or a small 1st degree burn); in fact, the worker may not even report the injury.

But every once in a while, the stars all align just right (or wrong) and an accident happens that results in the worker suffering a severe injury. And THAT is when everyone stands down to focus on “safety” – or more accurately, that is when many organizations fill out an accident report, submit their workers comp form, and then tries to figure out what the injured worker did to get himself hurt. And then “safety” remains our top priority . . . at least until things settle down . . . and we all go back to business as usual . . . and the cycle repeats itself . . .

So here is my suggestion for the definition of “Safety”, to be used throughout discussions in this blog:

Key Term #5

Safety : The systematic evaluation of our workplace, equipment, materials, processes, procedures, workers, and management system to identify potential hazards that could cause accidents and injuries so those hazards can be eliminated or controlled to an acceptable level of risk.

What do you think? Are you on board with this definition of safety? And what about the definitions of the other four terms? I want your thoughts on these as well as suggestions for improvement (enter them in the “Comments” section below). But please remember, this blog (and these definitions) is not directed towards helping occupational safety and health experts with years of experience that may be looking to delve into new cutting edge theories. This blog is intended to help those with responsibilities for workplace safety and health who are relatively new to the safety field, as well as people such as small business owners and others such as HR managers working at small to mid-sized companies who handle safety while they wear other hats as well.

So please give me your feedback with that purpose in mind. And also, please share a link to this blog with others in your network who could benefit from this information.