'Safety first' really needs to be understood as having 2 meanings and 2 valuable contributions to make
By Dave Crisp
A book, mentioned several months ago by a friend, now seems to be flying off the shelves (76 copies disappeared from my local bookstore in less than a week) — Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit.
I previously mentioned one example he cites, but another that came to mind is the Alcoa story of how an entire culture changed through instilling habits of good safety practice to create not only a much safer workplace, but a far more productive and less fractious culture.
It’s definitely worth mentioning that not only did CEO Paul O’Neill improve share prices of this struggling company he took the reins of through his tenure from roughly 1987 to 1999 by 200 per cent (a fact noted in the book that’s reasonably impressive), but a little digging shows he also increased revenues from about US$1.5 billion to US$23 billion (more than 15 times higher).
Duhigg makes a pretty good case that this resulted quite directly from O’Neill’s insistence that Alcoa start taking safety most seriously, to the point where they regularly won (and still win) awards. In one case he unhesitatingly fired a star senior executive for not reporting a relatively minor accident in his division. Everyone took it as a given that would happen, being now part of the culture, and they were not only OK with it but pleased about the consistency shown.
We often hear “safety first,” but you can bet in many cases it’s still lip service, unfortunately. After all, in our super-busy organizations, who really has time to stop, do the training, create the reminders and all the other activities necessary to really promote and ensure safety first. At best, it’s a nice add-on to try to show we care and to meet increasingly onerous legal obligations (without being able to show due diligence processes are in place, CEOs and other senior executives and even board members can be personally liable or even go to jail for serious accidents). With all that threat, you would expect more companies would compete for one of the Canada’s Safest Employers awards.
Thomson Reuters, having added Canadian Occupational Safety magazine to compliment others like Canadian HR Reporter, now hosts these annual awards and did a great job earlier this month. I served on the boards of the old IAPA (Industrial Accident Prevention Association) and later briefly Ontario's Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), as well as being the senior executive team member with overall accountability for safety programs at my last employer (for 70,000 people). So I didn’t expect many new insights from attending the gala, but several things stood out at the award.
First, just how much the companies that won do to keep everyone focused on safety — from weekly training sessions to quizzes and contests, changing their efforts to keep them fresh and interesting. The idea of buddying up pairs to encourage each other was novel to me, despite my previous experience.
It clearly made a huge amount of sense in shops heavily populated by highly diverse workers — ethnically and linguistically. New Canadians and newer workers in general are often cited as high risk, high accident groups. We know that people listen and relate more comfortably to others like themselves (however that’s defined — we’re new, we’re diverse, we’re female, we’re male, etcetera). Teaming people in different ways for different purposes — diverse teams for developing innovative ideas, but similar buddies to ease communication and model safety standards, might be worth serious consideration.
What always hovers in the background is the importance of CEO support. Several mentioned directly how essential it was and several CEOs appeared as advocates in the short videos shown about the winning organizations, even though they sent their safety leaders to accept. It would be expecting a lot of CEOs to appear at every function, but they were all well in evidence in training and policy areas.
Of course even those fairly knowledgeable in the area (as this audience was) always experience some surprise at certain categories or winners. Several noted the Calgary Catholic School District. I used to hear people express surprise about retail safety, too — with an overtone of "what can hanging up a dress require in safety standards?"
We forget schools and retailers are involved with warehousing, furniture and equipment moving, trucking, deliveries, chemicals, maintenance of buildings and more, all of which carry obvious risks. One of the biggest unexpected dangers for retail was women, particularly those in high heels, constantly lifting and moving very large, heavy boxes and carts. So slips, falls, twisted backs, shoulders, ankles and other potentially serious accidents added to cuts and scrapes on a regular basis. There really isn’t any occupation that is fairly safe. Virtually any can suddenly produce nasty events unless people pay attention, just as we have to in personal life — crossing the street even.
There also isn’t a better way to get angry staff engaged and working with management they distrust or lack faith in than to start building programs and habits (in other words, culture) around something everyone in both camps should be able to see a beneficial. That’s why it’s so important to publicize company results of those who win such awards.
There’s little fear we’ll find companies with bad results and great safety programs unless some unexpected disaster has hit them. Alcoa’s story certainly spells it out. Safety first not only is a good day-to-day operating guide, it is actually a practical way to shoot for better company financial results, literally by starting working on safety first, then working on productivity more directly.
Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.balance-and-results.com.
If only more managers really understood that safety first has this dual meaning — both for the good of individuals and for starting the journey to better results, I think we’d see safety being worked on first a whole lot more than it presently is.