Chain of Thought

Safety: Why the Lean and Neat are Survivors

Every species of animal has a natural instinct for self preservation. Ironically, we humans, being above the animals, tend to lose that feeling of vulnerability at certain points in our development. It starts when we're toddlers, as the drive to discover new things develops before our fear of consequences. If we survive into the teen years, the consequences get more dicey as our drive to discover turns into a drive to drive.

I'm thinking this way because I just learned that June is National Safety Month—and it's already more than half over. The National Safety Council (NSC) issued a bunch of educational materials well before June to get people hip to the dangers of Summertime (June 1-4), preventing overexertion (June 5-11), teen driving safety (June 12-18), preventing slips, trips and falls (June 19-25) and “on the road, off the phone” (motor vehicle safety, June 26-30).

I'm surprised any of us reach the age of senility.

Even if we do pass through childhood's stages of innocence and recklessness unscathed, adulthood's stages of greed eventually take over. Then we're in real trouble. We get a job and any lingering sense of safety is shaped by our company's sense of values—or lack of them. If safety is not valued, chances are it's also seen as a cost. It's at that point when an employee's chances of seeing a retirement party really get diminished.

According to the NSC, unintentional injuries and deaths in the United States reached an estimated 128,200 in 2009. The 2009 estimate – the highest on record – is 47% greater than the 1992 total of 86,777 – the lowest annual total since 1924. The cost of unintentional injuries to Americans and their employers exceeds $693 billion nationally, or $5,900 per household, the NSC says. That's why it's encouraging businesses and communities across the country to participate in National Safety Month—to increase awareness of the top causes of preventable injuries and deaths and to encourage safe behaviors.

Where occupational safety is concerned, devoting June to safety talk is fine, but if it's just talk, it's a waste of time—especially if it's forgotten the other 11 months. So in keeping with Gordon Gekko's philosophy that greed is good, I'd like to share a snippet of a recent interview I had with John Henshaw, senior vice president and managing principal, ChemRisk Industrial Hygiene and Safety Group and former assistant secretary of labor and head of OSHA between 2001 and 2004. I talked to Mr. Henshaw for an article on the link between lean business practices and safety for MH&L's July issue. It is widely accepted that there's a link between lean operations and good housekeeping, but the safety element is often ignored because it's seen as an added cost.

“If you do time and motion studies and calculate what it costs to produce a viable product, the percentage of product that is of value to customers goes down if housekeeping is bad,” Henshaw told me. And in making the link between housekeeping and safety, he cited the case of one company that embraces lean manufacturing, six sigma and all the other lean tools available to manufacturers. This is a $3 billion company with 500 sites around the country, employing 40,000 people. At one site, by phasing in good housekeeping practices between 2006 and 2010, the injury rate went down from 8 to .7. The company achieved a 190% growth in profitability over that timeframe, a 49% increase in customer satisfaction, a 43% decrease in lost business and a 76% decrease in turnover.

“For this one plant, since before the economic downturn, they started to see positive results fairly soon and it continued during the downturn and continues to this day,” Henshaw said. “Their big issues were repetitive stress injuries from stooping and bending, carrying awkward loads, and there were a couple major incidents including amputations and a fatality.”

He advises companies to view safety and health as an added value not as a cost or as a compliance issue.

“If the company is only shooting at compliance then they're missing out on what lean manufacturing is all about—reducing or eliminating cost that doesn't add value for the customer.”

I propose making every month National Safety Month. Immortality, like perfection, may not be achievable, but would it kill you to try for it?

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