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Construction Safety

In Construction Safety, Language Matters

TJ Lyons | September 15, 2022

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Past construction safety columns examined things like poor crane placement and suicide prevention in construction. This article takes a step back, looking at the words we use and the ways we listen. What we hear influences how we react and how we form opinions—and this impacts safety.

When I think of my parents, long since gone, I often remember things they said to me. Once, after a tractor accident, my dad said, "I knew that was going to happen," and as my twin brother and I boarded a bus for summer 4-H camp, my mother said, "Remember the family name!" Both statements elicited feelings of concern and guilt, as they were meant to, so they would stick. They did.

TED Talk on Language Influencing Thought

More recently, I listened to a recent TED talk by Lera Boroditsky, "How Language Shapes the Way We Think." This talk made me realize why we Americans assign blame and consequence so easily. If you can, take the time and listen closely to the discussion on assigning blame. There is an opportunity to recognize the shape of the English language and its relevance to what safety professionals do.

When I listened to the section on blame, accident investigations came immediately to mind. In particular, the unseen damage to good people is created when we think and report in English about an accident that involved someone who speaks Spanish. I have played this TED talk numerous times and listened closely to capture the insight and observations regarding English and non-English speakers.

In the event of an accident, English speakers tend to blame the person involved and punish that person accordingly. Spanish speakers, however, approach the same situation as an accident without assessing blame … or punishment. This language construction has consequences. Whereas English speakers blame the worker, Spanish speakers focus on the accident and the intention. He broke the window versus the window was broken. Ms. Boroditsky says, "The language guides the reasoning." I love that.

Focus on the Situation, Not the Blame Game

When I think of all the blame I have assigned so easily in the past, it makes me sad. For example, my conclusions in summary reports read, "He rolled over the excavator" and "She put her hand on the mixer's shaft, amputating the end of her finger." It is so easy to blame the worker in the safety field rather than solve the situational problem.

I offer the following thoughts.

  • When we blame a worker, we reason that the event occurred because of that one individual's acts.
  • Holding one person responsible is easier to manage than considering all the contributors to the incident.
  • We think removing a worker who did something unsafe eliminates the chance of a reoccurrence.
  • We rarely blame a crew for an unsafe situation because we don't want to lose or upset that talent.
  • Only recently do we hold those supervising the work responsible for construction safety incidents.

We must consider the impact of looking at the environment that created the accident rather than the individual or those supervising; that's prevention. Below is one of my favorite examples. When I requested a young man to carefully come down from the ladder, I asked him, "Why didn't you get a taller one?" He answered, "This is what the boss gave me."

But, think about it. If he had fallen and been hurt, we would have blamed him. If he did not get hurt in the fall, we would require him to attend a session to explore the circumstances that he allowed.

Now, imagine the impact on a Spanish worker involved in an accident who discovers, after an accident, the English-speaking blame game. Is it any wonder that hard feelings result? Knowing this, we can avoid those hard feelings. Now is a great time for any risk or safety professional to take the time to listen for this tendency to blame during any investigation. Consider these examples.

  • As she walked off the expected walking path across the hole covering (clearly marked HOLE), it failed, and she fell to her death, versus a poorly installed hole cover failed as she walked across it; the fall killed her.
  • The worker was using a ladder that was too short for safe access at the height needed and fell, killing himself, versus the ladder supplied to the worker was too short for the task, resulting in a fall and his death.
  • The operator swung his load into the adjacent crane's swing area, bringing down both cranes and killing both crane operators, versus, as one crane was rotating to place its load, it struck an adjacent crane, causing both to fail and resulting in both operators suffering fatal injuries.

This characteristic of the English language goes far beyond safety. We don't ask our spouse if they can help locate the remote, we ask, "Where did YOU last have the remote?" Or consider a parent crying in pain to her child, "Why did you put those LEGO bricks on the stairs?"

Our common language is common English. If we recognize the power and failures of the English language, we can look more closely at how unsafe conditions are allowing workers to get hurt rather than blaming the workers performing the work. Have a real, honest conversation regarding what happened versus focusing on who did it.

My suggestion is to involve non-English speakers that were involved in helping craft our incident reports. Another is to have a conversation about language diversity with those doing the work before starting the work. Perhaps explain to a Spanish-speaking crew the nuances and failings of English as you walk the construction site, suggesting how corrections like "Hey, get off that ladder before you break your leg" make sense in English but can be very confusing to a Spanish speaker.

As we have learned, English speakers tend to focus on the worker when placing blame. Here are some examples from Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigations.

  • Employee Fractures Hip and Pelvis in Fall from Dumpster
  • Employee Falls through Skylight and Is Killed by Blunt Force
  • Employee Fractures Wrist in Fall from Haystack Pulling Bales
  • Employee Fractures Shoulder
  • Employee #1 continued to work, took a break, and then returned to work on cutting the blocks. At approximately 10:30 a.m., he ran the radial arm saw over his left hand, leaving a laceration that almost amputated the left thumb and cut approximately 2 inches beyond the wrist.

Once you start looking for how we communicate in English, you will spot this habit in reports and in conversations. We should consider the opportunity of adopting the language of those doing the work.

When working overseas, I have been on projects with 3,000 workers, where four kitchens prepared food catering to different nationalities and religions. That said, we would still state to everyone in English, "We are requiring these new helmets so you don't damage your head when you fall." What we should have said was, "We are providing these new helmets that are specially designed to protect your head in the event of a fall."


I really had not realized how the English language influences the way we think and communicate and the effect of our specific words on others, particularly non-English speakers. Recognizing these shortcomings is key. By sharing this insight into our English language, I hope our industry will take the time to understand the power and damage of what we say compared to others in our world.

And the next time one of my grandchildren runs too fast, trips, falls, and breaks a leg, I will consider that their leg was broken, not that they broke their leg. That's step one for all of us.

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