Stop Saying Safety is Number 1

SThere’s a couple of reasons for this:

  1. Although most often management people say that safety is number 1 – their behaviour does  not support that statement
  1. Why do business’s exist? It’s not to be safe – It’s to make money (let’s be real… it is okay to say that).

If you’re a safety progressional reading this, please take this to heart, and coach supervisors and managers to stop saying that safety is number 1.

If you’re a manager or supervisor reading this, I challenge you to look at your safety messages to the work force. See if your actions with the work force are in alignment with your words.

Time and again we see messages from an executive during an orientation video or an executive message at the beginning of the new year with such phrases as, “Safety is our top priority” or “Safety is number 1”. But in this context it is a vague and abstract message. Therefore it often fails to resonate.

The message is usually unbelievable because most executives and managers do not realize their behaviour, actions, & direction do not support their words. This is simply a disconnect with the men and women at the sharp end of the sword.

I must be clear on something before you read on: I do not believe they are bad people. I know many them and they are good people. I also believe that in their heart of hearts they do not want to see or hear of anyone getting hurt. There is simply a lack of engagement with the workers they hope to influence; Those amazing folks getting it done on the shop floor and at the field sites.

After 20+ years of experience in the safety profession, I have come to believe it is generally an oversight on their part by a simple lack of awareness. You can test this if you are a manager or executive, or simply in any leadership role. Ask yourself the name of the last front line worker you talked to. Or ask yourself topic of the last conversation you had with a worker. If you have the answer then hats off to you. That is spectacular because you are on the right track. But unfortunately most will not have the answers to these questions. It is just a simple disconnect.

I came face to face with this theory a year or so ago. The work site had just returned to work from Christmas break. I was giving a speech to the work force at an industrial construction site. We called it a “Fresh Start presentation”. The construction was an expansion project of a distribution terminal for LPG (liquified petroleum gas). LPG & was shipped to the terminal by pipeline, then distributed to various other petrochemical facilities via truck, rail or pipelines.

In a facility such as this one there is always a focus on “cost”, as there should be. Any business that does not monitor cost will soon be out of business. Every time the facility stops shipping product there is a revenue loss, or a cost which impacts the profitability.

My message to this workforce (approximately 120 trades people) at this Fresh Start was “we must stop saying safety is number one”.

I posed the question – “Why is the company doing construction to expand the facility?”

From the back the room and almost like a whisper came an anonymous question like reply, “to make money?” YES. YES. YES!!! I said to the back of the room, “exactly!!! it’s okay to say that.”

Now I’m the safety guy, so I got some strange and surprised looks.

Then I asked, “Folks, the companies you work for won the contracts to build the expansion, so they could… what?”

“Make money” came another anonymous reply. But this time the reply was more of a statement than a question.

YES. YES. YES.”I said again, “exactly!!! they are in business, to make money.”

Then I pointed to someone near the front of the room, “why are you here working?”

“To make money said the worker.” I replied, “she gets it.”

Then I pointed to someone near the middle of the room, “why are you here working?”

“To make money said the worker.” I replied, “he gets it.”

Then I pointed to someone near the back of the room, “why are you here working?”

“To make money said the worker.” I replied, “he gets it.”

Then at the back of the room I spotted an unhappy person. He was glaring at me over his glasses, with a deep frown. It was the director of the facility… Oops.

It was his turn to give a message. Things went downhill from there. “Well,” he said, and looking directly at me, “I’m one of those management types that does believe that safety is number 1.” He went on to mention that the workers had management support to work safe, to stop unsafe work and that there is no cost put on safety. Yes, those are the right things to say.

Well, later that day a truck driver was loading LPG into a tank on his truck. He had a problem with a valve and LPG began to vent. When liquified petroleum gas rapidly expands from a liquid state to a gas state, it creates a white cloud. A white cloud of flammable gas. The security camera showed the worker getting completely engulfed in the gas cloud. He actually disappeared for a moment until the gas cloud dissipated.

When the gas expands rapidly it also gets extremely cold. The truck driver sustained frost bite burns to both legs from mid-thigh to just below his knees.

The valve system the truck driver had to use was awkward to operate. There had been complaints about the system by the drivers, and this type of gas release had happened 3 time that year. We discussed better and safer options. But this same director that said safety was number 1, said to me “It’s not in our operating budget.”

Do you see the problem here?

He did not know it, but that day, he lost a ton of credibility. He lost it with the very people he wanted to influence. With the very people whose safety he said his number 1 priority.”

No credibility equals no positive influence which equaled no impact for him.

This director understands that he must control costs. But at what cost? In the case of the gas release, all work stopped. There was the added cost to the injured truck driver, the cost of getting another driver to move the truck, and the cost of loss production while the facility could not ship product.

I know this director and truly do believe that he is not a callous person. He really does care about people. 

Leaders must understand that their actions speak louder than their words. It is so important for leaders to have a sense of self awareness about their actions, or in some cases lack of action and the impact they may or may not have on the workforce they hope to influence.   

“You can never talk your way out of something you behaved your way into.” I have said this to many front line leaders. I get the same stunned yet thoughtful silence every time.

The safety of our men and women does not need to compromise company profits, but, neither do company profits have to compromise the safety of the men and women. These two things do not need to be opposing forces. 

We just need to be okay with saying, “we’re here to make money”. But we also need to remember that we can money safely by taking care of our people.

We need to get past the idea that safety always costs money. If the safety of our workers is negatively impacting profits, we’re doing it wrong. Period.