Why is Safety a Four Letter Word?

I’m sure you have all heard the grumblings; “Look out, here comes the safety officer”, or “quick, everyone take lunch; the OSHA inspector is here”’, or even “I’m not going to do it the way our safety officer says, it takes too long”. Even at the executive level safety is often perceived as a pain, too expensive, or an unwanted increase in production time. Why the negative perception? Maybe there is simply a poor understanding of what safety is all about.

Part of the issue is that company management and company workers often have an opposed view of safety priorities; therefore, the true benefits of a safety program get caught in the middle of the infighting and a poor opinion of a safety program develops. When the top 5 safety issues are discussed and ranked by these two groups, the opposing priority of the two perspectives become obvious (Stricoff, 2000):

Worker Perspective:

  1. Humanistic Issue – it is probably first and foremost in the workers mind. They want themselves and their co-workers to be able to make it home at the end of the day.
  2. Ethical/Moral Issue – most workers want to do the right thing. They give more consideration to the moral/ethical when faced with actually having to perform the task.
  3. Financial issue – most workers are detached from the overall company financial incentives. A viewpoint of “that’s not my problem” or “I’m here to put in my 8 hours” may exist.
  4. Legal Issue – this comes in to play when workers are justifying point 3 (Ethical/Moral). Finding a legal reason why something shouldn’t be done because they don’t feel that it’s right.
  5. Public Health Issue – most workers don’t have a clear line on this unless it is a major news story such as the Tracey Morgan/Walmart accident and sleep apnea/deprivation.

Company Perspective:

  1. Financial issue – most companies get around to looking at safety when the incident rates impact the profitability or bottom line, i.e. TRIR eliminating ability to bid, EMR/MOD costs, production lags.
  2. Legal Issue – similar to the above; companies focus on safety when they become at risk for fines, penalties, or when a lawsuit ensues.
    Public Health Issue – when there may be public awareness around an incident in their industry where the employer may be engaged in a similar activity.
  3. Humanistic Issue – when confronted with how safety may impact the overall health and safety of the employees in their span of care through a particular incident.
  4. Ethical/Moral Issue – usually the least or last factor considered and usually used to justify an action taken, rather than used to propose such action.

From the above information it appears that the worker’s main concerns revolve around their personal safety and doing the right thing, whereas companies tend to put profit, avoiding fines and penalties, and their reputation first. This may not always be the case, but generally holds true and does make sense to some extent.

However, a good safety program holds these two realities in tandem and manages this tension. Time and time again, studies have shown that the return on investment of a safety program is substantial; for every dollar spent a company receives four to six dollars in return (Inouye, 2015). Additionally, safety programs have been shown to foster morale, increase production, and increase employee retention (Bird, 2014).

Sure Steel, Inc. found this to be true when they promoted a culture described as Zero Harm. Zero Harm seems to be a more obtainable goal since it accepts that there may be incident occurrences, but these incidents are observed, root cause identified, and steps taken to eliminate, or the impact managed through PPE before injury and/or property damage may occur. This was accomplished through a 5-step process called TRACK. TRACK is an anacronym that stands for “Think through the process, Recognize the hazards, Assess the risks, Control the Hazards, Keep safety first in all tasks” (Hansen 2018). This coupled with the concept of empowering every employee with “Stop work Authority” had a tremendous effect on their safety culture. Again, as Hansen duly notes, “management must be fully on board and publicly state and demonstrate that no worker will be punished for exercising this right.”

At the end of the day, safety’s first and foremost task is to protect workers from harm. The good news for everyone is that in doing this, companies also see a great return… Safety is just good business.

References

Bird Jr., F., Germain, G., & Clark, M. (2014). Practical Loss Control Leadership (3rd ed.). Katy, TX: DNV-GL USA, Inc. ISBN:0-88061-054-9

Hansen, R. (2018, October). TASK – Sure Steel, Inc. Building a ZERO HARM Safety Culture. PowerPoint session presented at the Risk Control Workshop of the Atlanta 2018 Affinity Captive Resource.

Inouye, J. (2015). Best practices in contractor management. Campbell Institute Library Online. Retrieved from www.thecampbelinstitute.org/library

Stricoff, R. S. (2000). Safety performance measurement: Identifying prospective indicators with high validity. American Society of Engineers, Pages 36 – 39.

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