How do people interpret visuals such as tattoos and graffiti? Do we fully understand the various safety mantras used in industry? Are the “safety slogans” useful and what are the trade-offs?

As Covid-19 restrictions eased in Europe, life returned to normal in some ways. Like many others, I took the opportunity to travel. Beause of my interest in semiotics, I decided to focus on signs, symbols and their significance during my trips and concentrate on two elements: tattoos and graffiti. When I mentioned this to one of my daughters, she asked: “What do tattoos and graffiti have to do with risk and safety?”

You might be wondering the same, but I’ll explain as we go through my journey.

Tattoos – signs or symbols

The oldest known form of tattoos dates back over 5 000 years, when the ancient Romans and Greeks practised the art of tattooing to mark or punish slaves, criminals and prisoners of war. Sadly, in more recent times people held captive at the Nazi concentration and death camps during World War II had their prison number tattooed on their forearms. These numbers were used for identification after execution. It was also a way for the Nazi guards to dehumanise the inmates by branding them like animals (similar to what farmers do to their livestock) and taking away their identity – they became just a number.

But tattoos aren’t only used for ghastly purposes. They form part of traditional cultures and practices as well, such as the Tā moko – a tattoo of the Maori people of New Zealand. And people have chosen to have tattoos for various reasons, be it to make a statement, for self-expression, love of the art, a form of rebellion or identification with a certain group.

The significance of an individual’s tattoo is open to our interpretation, which could be incorrect.

For example, on one of my journeys, I noticed that the waitress at the lakeside restaurant where I was sitting had a tattoo on her forearm. It was of a woman with her hands tied together at the wrists with a thick rope. My interpretation was that she, at some stage, had been in prison. When I asked her about it, a very different meaning emerged. She explained that it reflected the power of women to deal with any challenge!

The same possibility of error applies to signs and symbols used in companies. If it is not clear what their meanings are, employees and contractors interpret it for themselves, which might be off the mark. For example, a symbol or sign with the words “Zero – Safety at Work”. Does this slogan mean zero injuries or there is zero safety at work? Signs and slogans are interpreted differently by different people; therefore, it is important to understand the trade-offs and consider the intention when designing signs and symbols in the workplace.


Drawings of expression have been part of the social environment for thousands of years, from the time when people drew images and depicted stories on cave walls to the days of the Ancient Romans and Greeks, who wrote messages on walls and caves to protest against certain issues.

Graffiti, deriving from the Italian word graffio (scratch), started in the US in the 1960s and was closely associated with gangs marking their territories. Graffiti has become even more popular in recent years and can be seen in many cities around the world.

Very often, it is done illegally, damaging private property, and is often done during the night when nobody is around to catch the artist in the act. This is why this form of art is regarded as rebellious in many countries.

Most graffiti paintings have a message, although sometimes hidden, via a sign or symbol depicting something of significance.

In Vienna, artists are permitted to practise their selected form of art and to voice their specific messages, or simply exercise their spray-painting skills, on the walls along the length of the Danube Canal.

Many people walk past, often taking a glimpse at the art; however, I wonder how many take the time to understand the message and not simply admire the skill of the artist. Similarly, when posters are displayed in the workplace, how many people consider the actual message?

Safety mantras and their trade-offs

Safety mantras or “slogans,” which I like to refer to as “industrial art”, have been part of the industry for decades. I do, however, believe that those employed in the risk and safety field need to understand that everything has significance and also brings trade-offs.

I focus here on three safety mantras that do not make sense, but are commonly used in industry. These are: “Zero Harm”, “Safety Comes First” and “Safety is a Choice You Make”.*

Most people probably just walk by the graffiti art and other semiotics around them without cognitively or consciously being aware of their surroundings or semiotics. However, their unconscious mind notices the semiotics and absorbs them. The same applies to the posters, signs, symbols and mantras that we display in the workplace.

Zero Harm

This is the most common safety mantra, which has been used and incorporated into the risk and safety language across the globe. People employed in the risk and safety field tend to believe that Zero Harm is achievable.

But believing in Zero Harm means that we do not consider humans to be fallible, which is absurd. People will make mistakes and people will be injured.

When considering any safety related legislation around the world, none of it requires companies to eliminate all risks; however, the requirement is to reduce the risk as much as reasonably practical. Therefore, it is clear that there will be a residual amount of risk and whilst this is the case the Zero Harm mantra remains contradictory.

Dust in the eye or a paper cut on a finger is an injury – this is a simple example of why zero is an impossible target. Yes, we want to eliminate fatal and life-altering injuries from the workplace, however, elimination of all injuries is impossible. Why even set a goal that can never be achieved? All we are doing is setting people up for failure.

But what are the trade-offs? Firstly, since it is unachievable and people know it, a sense of mistrust develops. Secondly, each time someone is injured at work, be it a minor first aid or more serious lost-time injury, a sense of failure is experienced both by the person who is injured and by the team. Thirdly, with this mantra in place, employees might decide not to report an injury, because they do not want to let their team down.

Therefore, the concept, language and ideology of Zero Harm does not motivate anyone and makes no sense.

Safety First

These words are often seen displayed on the walls or communication boards of factories. The question is: if safety comes first, what comes second and third? Health, the environment? Or does one of the other disciplines in the organisation come second, third, fourth and so on?

A safety mantra like this causes much distrust in companies. Leaders are aware that companies cannot be run efficiently without reliable engineering, sound turnover, good profits and more. In turn, employees are told that safety comes first but, on the other hand, they are placed under pressure to get the job done – no matter what it takes. This is a case of language discourse.

Surely the mantra “Safety First” should be replaced with “People First”.

Safety is a Choice you Make

This mantra is a total myth and should be removed from the language of risk and safety. Not everything we do is activated by the conscious mind. The majority of our actions and thoughts are prompted by the unconscious.

However, when there is an incident or someone is observed working unsafely, it is not uncommon for people to apportion blame, believing that the person took the conscious decision to work unsafely. How often do we see people being blamed, insulted or called stupid, or being blamed for negligence?

Leaders sometimes place undue pressure on employees to get the job done, speed up production or conduct maintenance activities in less time. This could drive employees to consciously or unconsciously take risks to meet the expectations of their leaders or, sometimes, to gain the respect of their colleagues for saving time and keeping the machines running.

The reality is that nobody chooses to be injured while working. Many variables result in work being carried out with a higher risk of injury. The unconscious mind has a huge impact on the behaviour and decisions taken by people at work and in their private life. Surely, the mantra “Safety is a Choice that we Make” is just another one of those myths preached in risk and safety!


People – from employees to contractors – interpret slogans, signs and symbols as well as safety mantras differently. As leaders we need to consider the trade-offs of the message given by our safety mantras, posters, signs and symbols displayed in the workplace, as well as the language used in our overall communication efforts.

* I elaborate on these three elements – Zero Harm, Safety First and Safety is a Choice you Make – in my new book, due to be released early next year, titled Humanising Safety.

About The Author

Brian Darlington is the group head of safety and health for the Mondi Group, based in Vienna, Austria. He has filled the role since 2012 and is responsible for safety and health in more than 30 countries. Darlington started working at Iscor before joining Mondi in 1987, working in Gauteng. In 2000 he transferred to the Kraft Division in Richards Bay. During 2005, he transferred to Europe, taking up the position of business unit SHE manager, responsible for SHE in paper mills in Austria, Hungary, Israel, Slovakia, Poland, South Africa and Russia, as well as forests operations in South Africa and Russia.

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