When I ask corporate leaders why they are committed to preventing serious injuries and deaths among their workers, most say they care about their employees and don’t want to see anyone hurt. They’ll also note that “safety pays” in reducing costs, or admit they fear reputational damage following a significant incident at their company.
In my experience, these rationales rarely lead to significant changes in workplace safety and the prevention of serious injuries and deaths. Underneath it all, many business leaders have an implicit but unfounded belief that, while it is necessary to reduce workplace injury risk, there is a trade-off between profits and the expenditures necessary to keep workplaces safe. One example of this sticks in my mind.
During my years at OSHA, where I served as the Assistant Secretary of Labor from 2009 through the beginning of 2017, I received several reports of safety system failures at DuPont facilities. I watched with concern as the company, under pressure from activist shareholders to increase profits, cut costs and let its safety program deteriorate. Needed repairs and upgrades were delayed, worker training postponed, and risk assessments overlooked. The culmination was an incident at an insecticide plant in LaPorte, Texas, where, as a result of a basic process safety management failure, an extremely toxic chemical—methyl mercaptan—was released and two workers were overcome. With inadequate equipment, others rushed in to save their colleagues. In all, four workers were killed.
We fined DuPont a few hundred thousand dollars —a high penalty for OSHA but petty cash for DuPont. To get management’s attention, I issued a statement declaring that “these four preventable workplace deaths and the very serious hazards we uncovered at this facility are evidence of a failed safety program.”
It worked. CEO Ellen Kullman came to see me and promised a top to bottom review of the DuPont safety program. I was pleased with our meeting, feeling like she had made a real commitment. And then, less than two weeks later, she stepped down.
Her successor, Ed Breen, was quoted as saying, “as we confront a challenging environment, [Kullman] and the management team already have taken actions to accelerate cost reductions. Looking ahead, we will continue to drive productivity, and we plan to conduct a deep dive into the details of our cost structure and allocation of capital to ensure we deliver appropriate returns for shareholders.”
When I read DuPont CEO Breen’s words “accelerating cost reductions,” my heart sank. I thought immediately of BP and the other industrial giants whose “accelerating cost reductions” had disastrous consequences. These kinds of statements speak to a leader’s choice of values, and a failure to understand the relationships between a safe work environment and operational performance. They convey to workers what’s really important, and they create ample context for inadequate safety focus lower down the organization.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Companies can be successful and safe at the same time. The reality is that virtually all workplace injuries are preventable, and safety management and operational excellence are intimately linked. Injuries and catastrophic events, in addition to being tragic, are evidence that production is not being managed correctly. Improved operational performance will result in fewer injuries.
To read the full story, visit https://hbr.org/2018/03/7-ways-to-improve-operations-without-sacrificing-worker-safety.
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