29th Jun, 2021 Read time 5 minutes

Tim Marsh: “Safety IS a Laughing Matter …”

This article provided by content partner Tim Marsh looks at communication in health and safety’; specifically, how we can improve our communication to get our message across through humour and laughter.


Bored after a long vaccine queue and asked ‘are you here of your own free will?’ the quip “No, Astra Zenca have my family hostage” is amusing only to the person making said quip! How many times a day do these long suffering NHS workers get a variation on that I wonder? However, this articles makes the case that humour really does have a place in the health (and safety) world.

A few months ago I gave a paper at the Health and Wellbeing show followed by an interview with the comedian Steve Royale (runner up in last year’s Britain’s Got Talent). Our background research was fascinating. It turns out that the oft heard observation ‘safety is no laughing matter’ couldn’t be further from the truth because it turns out that laughter is a highly useful species adaptation in several important ways.


How a laugh can save your life

A laugh can save your life in several ways. Most obviously because not only is ‘laughter is the best medicine’ (see the film Patch Adams and all grandparents everywhere) often it’s true that ‘if I didn’t laugh I’d cry’. A lovely quote from William Ward that is directly relevant for wellbeing and mental health:


“A well-developed sense of humour is the pole that adds balance to your steps as you walk the tightrope of life”. 


It’s also bonding and there’s no need to expand on this nest quote except to reference perhaps the fabulous achievements of the most unlikely pair in all of politics – Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness. AKA ‘the Chuckle Brothers’. Utterly diametrically opposed politically but, it transpired, with a shared sense of humour that allowed them to work together. As Victor Borge said …


“Shared laughter is the shortest distance between two people”.


The word ‘shared’ is key here as in the famous cinema lines “we’re not laughing at you, we’re laughing with you”… “but I’m not laughing” …”ok, then we’re just laughing about you and near you”.

I’m told that back in the day I was one of the first people to actively use humour to strive to convey ‘sticky’ safety messages and I’m really quite proud of that. (I’m less proud of a habit of turning into Chandler Bing from friends when stressed and/or bored).

So … the third use is that it can make key messages memorable and sticky. Some readers might have heard me try and raise a laugh by explaining the essence of the Cullen Inquiry report into safety culture with a cross-reference to the ‘how do I act here?’ anxiety of walking into a swingers club. Even in these more topic cautious times I still use this if only so I can tell the true story of the female politician who thought I’d said ‘swimming’ and proudly shouted out “twice a week every week”! Similarly, when trying to explain the vital importance of an aware, pro-active and calm mindset to accident prevention my business partner Jason Anker explains that he was fully aware of the risk but fell off the roof because he had a high score on our newly patented ‘fatalism and intolerance of societal, organizational and relationship stressors’ scale. (Or the “F. I.” scale for short).

This brings us to the final benefit of humour. To laugh is to “get it” and “getting it” is also hugely useful when we’re considering the wide variety or risks we face every day in life. (If you didn’t smile at our “F. I.” scale – you should know you didn’t get it!).


 “Humour is common sense speeded up” (Aristotle)


Clients are already running toolbox talks on the topic of “what’s your F. I. score today?” The point is they’re far less likely to run productive sessions that starts with the question ‘how fatalistic and stressed are you feeling?’. Therefore, I’d like to argue that anything that helps colleagues ‘get it’ should be utilised. Astute, objective learning, as described by Matthew Syed in the best ‘safety’ book of the last few decades (Black Box Thinking) is, he argues, the key component of individual, organizational, societal even species success.

Indeed, academics suggest that the primary role of laughter is to give us a pleasurable reward when we spot that what is expected/promised and what is real diverge. A chuckle is an evolved self-generated dog treat reward for ‘getting it’.

About Tim Marsh

Tim Marsh is a health and safety expert that has worked with the HSE Network on a number of different projects and is a frequent speaker at the HSE Global Series Congresses. The academic expertise he offers on mental health and wellbeing in health and safety provides some interesting context for this video.

Tim Marsh

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