Chain of Thought

Why safety should NOT be a priority

That's right. For a culture of safety to catch on, don't prioritize it. Value it. Safety must become part of an employee's—and a company's—value system. Here's the difference:

A priority is something that changes due to outside influences and demands. A value is something that outside influences can't change. You may see coffee as a priority, but if getting a cup would make you late for an important business meeting, you'll skip it. However, if showering and shaving would make you late for that meeting, chances are you'll be late because good hygiene is a value. A value backed by a strong system of social sanctions.

John Zeigle, a consultant with Value-Based Safety, says employees tend to fall into habits that prevent them from seeing risk. That's traditional. And traditional safety is reactive. It's waiting for something to happen before doing something. It's the attitude, “If OSHA makes us, we'll do it.”

But OSHA won't help you be safe, Zeigle told his audience during a session at last week's Material Handling Logistics Conference, hosted by HK Systems (now Dematic) in Park City, UT. Prior to OSHA, 37 people were killed on the job every day, he noted. Today, 40 years since OSHA began, 14 are killed every day. Sure, OSHA made a difference early on, but that improvement eventually slowed and flattened and workplace fatalities have stayed pretty constant in recent years. So not only must safety be a value within every company, but it must be a value held by every company's officers.

“Companies must understand the link between safety and profit,” Zeigle said. “Do the right thing and workers comp and medical costs will go down. But management must establish goals and expectations…show visible involvement…discuss safety regularly. Talk about what workers are doing right as well as what they do wrong. And reward people for doing the right thing.”

That doesn't mean financial rewards. It means instilling a feeling of accomplishment. Ron Pote, Zeigle's partner at Value-Based Safety, noted that financial rewards will come later, once an organization's people are engaged in ensuring a safety culture. He cited a study showing that such firms enjoyed 27% higher profits.

“Set a standard of accountability,” he suggested. “It's the same for kids as it is for employees. Focus on safety every day.”

But don't frame it as a zero tolerance program. That makes supervisors responsible for safety. People will do the bare minimum to stay out of trouble. Get buy-in. Self responsibility is key. When success goes from “No one got hurt today” to “Look what we accomplished today,” that's when safety will have become a value. It will be part of business, not a thing unto itself.

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