New communications on workplace safety 1

Jen Jackson is a communications adviser who has come to prominence in the occupational health and safety (OHS) sector in Australia over the last 12 months for lots of Business problems and supportreasons.  She is young, female and talks clearly and sensible – all elements that many do not associate with OHS.  Jackson is always worth listening to and her latest public outing was on the Fit For Work podcast (Episode 14).

Part of her advice seems to be to know your audience.   It is important to understand who you are talking to and vary your tone and language to ensure that your words are effective, that the audience fully comprehends the important information you are imparting; otherwise its all a waste of time. Jackson suggests surveys and other tools but, in some cases, this may provide too much detail and can seem impersonal.  Managers and executives are expected to be “walking the floor” more nowadays and this activity may be a more useful way of understanding the workforce’s expectations.

Jackson also talks about “habituation” being that hazards or communication becomes normalised and so is not given the attention it deserves.  A more common manifestation of this is that workers have become complacent.  Complacency is often behind  the text when people speak about the hazards you walk past being the standards you accept.  Jackson says that communication needs refreshing in order to break habituation; many of this blog’s articles  echo the aim of making safety communications effective.

However, communication is easier to refresh than are the actions of worker.  Refreshing workplace actions involves supervision and enforcement, usually, directly with the worker.  This involves time and diligence and many employers look for a cheaper mechanism that avoids these costs and commitments.  Often this leads to signage, posters and other campaigns that are far less labour-intensive and far less effective.

Jackson also endorses the use of real language and “human language” which she describes as “incredibly powerful”.  All professions and companies develop their own jargon which can be effective within tight social confines but business/nonsense words and phrases are increasingly entering standard business conversations.  These phrases need to be called out at the time they are spoken in order to show that the communication is not clear.  Some use such phrases purposely for obfuscation so that you are never quite sure if they have committed to something or not.

However this “calling out” also involves a degree of bravery.  When one does, the initial feeling is that the questioner is “thick” as they do not understand.  People at the meeting or in the group look at you as if you are not playing the game even though it is highly likely that one or two of them also do not understand what has just been said but have been afraid to ask the question.  All you are doing is seeking clarity so that you will know what is expected of you and you will know how to do your job.  The risk in not asking the question is that you work in a way that is contrary to what the boss/speaker believes they have just instructed, and this can lead to serious incidents in some workplaces.

The Fit For Work podcast seems to be establishing its niche by its weekly frequency and its decent production values. 2017 is likely to be the year of the safety podcasts, particularly in Australia.  This growth is to be supported as podcasts are an additional, complementary communication tool on workplace safety. It will be intriguing to watch this development as, currently, the podcasts are drawing from the same pool of safety advocates, researchers and communicators.

Jen Jackson is a good example of a new generation of safety communicators (I am not sure that there was ever a previous generation) who draws on research in non-safety areas and provides a new context to OHS communications. More information is available on her website Jaxsyn.

Kevin Jones


One comment

  1. The conduit metaphor – A case of frame conflict in our language about language.

    Here is a summary of a paper by Michael Reddy, presented first in 1977 (Ref 1) which needs to be known by any person who writes about communication. I thought I knew something about communication until I read this paper – but then I had to revise my ideas completely.

    The conduit metaphor is commonly used when people talk about communication, but most people never realise that they are using it.

    The conduit metaphor structures communication this way:

    Ideas are objects
    Linguistic expressions are containers
    Communication is sending and receiving.

    Evidence for the conduit metaphor seems to arise from many of the expressions we use to speak about communication:

    ‘Try to get your thoughts across better.’
    ‘None of her feelings came through with any clarity.’
    ‘You have not given me any idea of what you mean.’

    The original article expands enormously on this list.

    The pervasive nature of this metaphor, and that it escapes our notice, means that the way we speak about anything, including communication, imparts structure to the way we think about it.

    Looking at the three facets of the metaphor shown above, perhaps we do not notice that ideas can only really travel by telepathy, or that the way we often speak about communication (see the examples above) is metaphorical.

    Questions that arise are:

    Is the conduit metaphor misleading?
    Does it matter if it is?
    What are the alternatives to it, and should we use them?

    Once you look closely it is obvious that, although the conduit metaphor may describe much of present communication practice, it does not reflect success in communication.

    How often, for example, are the ‘neat’ concepts of the simple message-transmission conduit metaphor really operating when?

    We discuss our computer’s ailments with an expert?
    We read a share offer document or an annual report?
    We read a rates bill or telephone invoice?
    We listen to a politican speak?

    Of course they are not. Even when we add a reverse arrow to the conduit metaphor, it is still misleading. Ideas could only be ‘transferred’ by telepathy.

    The most we can say is this:

    A person has an idea or thought.
    The person uses spoken or written words to represent it.
    A second person hears or sees the words.
    The second person has ideas or thoughts.

    Some examples of non-conduit metaphor expressions illustrate the dramatic differences between using a concept that lacks correspondence to reality and one that is closer to it.

    Please speak to me more clearly about your feelings. N-C
    Please speak to me of your feelings using simpler words. N-C
    I have trouble understanding his essay. N-C

    Speak to me of your feelings in simpler words. C
    I have never understood the meaning in that essay. C

    In each case, the N-C sentences are neutral. They do not assume that ideas, thoughts and feelings can be packaged in words, spoken or written and transmitted.

    Does this all matter?

    Michael Reddy (1979) wrote in his original paper that:

    ‘. . . the basic processes of human communication – how they work, what sorts of wrinkles there are in them, when and why they are likely to succeed or fail. The problems of society, government and culture depend ultimately on something like the daily box score of such successes to communicate. If there are too many failures, or systematic types of failure, troubles will multiply.’

    The conduit metaphor implies communication as ‘message sending’ and successful message sending (whatever that is) as successful communication. These two assumptions are in error.

    If you have a very strong stomach, I suggest you read Reddy’s paper – available on the internet, for example at the site given below.

    You will enjoy mention of the toolmakers’ paradigm, the intervention of an evil wizard and then, at the end, understand some of the consequences of allowing this pervasive nonsense to go unchallenged. I find them profoundly disturbing.

    Successful communication is better defined as the clarification and negotiation of understanding and meaning – a far more difficult proposition.

    I take the liberty of reproducing Kevin’s second paragraph:

    Part of her advice seems to be to know your audience. It is
    important to understand who you are talking to and vary your tone
    and language to ensure that your words are effective*, that the
    audience fully comprehends# the important information you are
    imparting*; otherwise its all a waste of time. Jackson suggests
    surveys and other tools but, in some cases, this may provide too
    much detail and can seem impersonal. Managers and executives
    are expected to be “walking the floor” more nowadays and this
    activity may be a more useful way of understanding the workforce’s

    I have starred* two instances of the use of conduit metaphor. The # phrase “fully comprehends” is, I am afraid, impossible by this analysis.


    I do not believe in the concept of a good communicator. Sure, some people speak more clearly than others and display a sensitivity (often with body language) to their audiences.

    But, if communication comes from the Latin com+munere = to make common, surely the very idea of ‘a good communicator’ is nonsense?

    I believe there is good communication, but that is something that emerges from between people.

    If you think this comment is long, I regret to advise that I could go on for much longer.


    Reddy, M.J. (1979). The conduit metaphor — a case of frame conflict in our language about language. In A. Ortony (Ed.), Metaphor and thought. (p. 284-297. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    Available at:

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