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The "S" Word



One of the things that mystifies me about safety is that we can make it boring. If an ambulance or fire engine pulls up in the front parking lot, people quickly start peering out windows, wondering what’s going on. Sirens aren’t boring. Blood dripping on the deck isn’t boring, especially when it falls on your personal foot.

Nobody gets up in the morning and announces, “I think I’ll lop off a finger, call 911 and make a quick visit to the E.R. today.” Nobody makes plans to drive over to a buddy’s house by saying, “I’ll be there in half an hour, or I may not make it at all because I’ll be under arrest or in a ditch, so don’t wait for me but keep your cell handy in case I need help with bail.”

Somehow, we take these painful outcomes and reverse-engineer them into guidance and reminders that are the equivalent of counting sheep. The net result is an endless series of safety products—presentations, briefings, articles, messages and stand downs—that have the same effect as the old TQL program, in which the initialization quickly came to mean “Turn Quickly and Leave” instead of “Total Quality Leadership.”

And when I say that safety can be boring, I don’t mean polite-yawn, stretch-your-arms, take-a-gulp-of-coffee boring. I mean eyes-glazed-over, REM-sleep-here-I-come boring.

How is this possible? Since I have studied this conundrum for longer than most of you have been in the Navy (heck, why stop there, longer than most of you have been alive), you’d think that I’d have figured it out. Sorry, I haven’t. I try my hardest not to contribute to it, but I’m afraid my own record is mixed.

I suspect that the soporific effect of well-intentioned precautions involves several factors. One, for sure, is the numbing effect of repetition, made even worse by a fire-hose of one-size-fits-all precautions that don’t apply to most people most of the time, so that the occasional useful or meaningful tidbit is lost on a tide of who-cares/heard-that/don’t-believe-it stuff, seasoned with the occasional dash of knee-jerk over-reaction and/or making a “trend” out of a meaningless statistical hiccup.

Some of it is that you can get away with all sorts of knuckleheaded highjinks for a surprising length of time, which just convinces you that you can get away with them forever. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be bored, you just won’t try to pay attention.

A related problem, in terms of paying attention, is the fact that some people just don’t like others telling them what to do (or not do), especially off-duty. They let their attention wander, as well.

At least they stay upright. One of the exhibits in the fictional Summary of Mishaps Museum ( is a safety-training video that an E-1 hospitalman was watching when she passed out and did a face-plant on the deck, face first. At the Museum, I pretend that this presentation plays on a monitor in the lobby, where a couple of chairs are installed, equipped with seatbelts, in case any visitors want to try to sit through the whole thing. Granted, the E-1 might not have just drifted off into dreamland. Maybe the training presentation was too gross and she fainted (this has happened, but in civilian industry, not in the Navy). Or she may have had some other medical condition. My money’s on boredom, though.

The fact is that people are (or quickly become) allergic to the word “safety,” a.k.a. the “S” word. We’ve experimented with just not using it—for example, when we once launched a new magazine. Things seemed to be going well. We got a few emails from readers who said they liked it, and they told us they didn’t realize it was a safety magazine. We took this as a victory, until we got an email from a recruiter who said he wanted us to stop sending the new magazine, because parents of potential recruits were reading some of the articles about serious mishaps and were having second thoughts.

“Not a problem,” I’d have said to them. “Just tell your kid not to sleep through the safety lectures.”

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 Last reviewed: 27 February 2014

February 2012