Never Trust Anyone Who Claims Safety Is Their Number One Priority

Safety Priority

By Phil La Duke

The following is a retooled, repurposed, and recycled post that was origionally made to the now decommissioned Rockford Green International blog. (Since renamed the Worker Safety Net)

There are things that need to change in safety and they need to change fast.  Safety is losing ground, no matter how hard we try, we are losing ground in the court of public opinion—public policies are softening on safety (Michigan recently legalized the personal use of fireworks and the practice of riding motorcycles without a helmet—effectively rolling back almost 50 years of safety regulations.  Michigan may be a long way from where you live, but believe me these kinds of rollbacks aren’t isolated to Michigan.)

One of the primary reasons safety professionals have lost credibility is the insistence that safety is—or at least should be—an organization’s number one priority.  This ludicrous claim sets safety at odds with operations, and makes the both workers and the general public view us as kooks, imbeciles, or hopelessly out of touch.

Let me state for the record that I remain completely devoted to safety, I believe one’s right to make a living without undue jeopardy of loss of life or limb is a basic human right.  But how we approach the achievement of a safe workplace will greatly shape the likelihood of our success.

It’s tough to visit any workplace without seeing a poster that says, “safety is our number one priority”.  It’s a crock; no company ever has gone into business for the purpose of keeping its workers safe. Companies exist to make money. No sane person would manufacture, ship,  process, or manipulate anything if his or her primary motivation was to ensure nobody engaged in these activities got  injured. When safety professionals perpetuate the lie that safety is the number one priority they lose credibility and are alienated.  People hear, “safety is our number one priority” and know it’s either a lie, or the pathetic simpering of a deluded fool, in either case the prudent move is to assume the person spouting this nonsense can’t be taken seriously or trusted.

Imagine a worker who has been told that “safety is our number one priority” following any advice the boob who said offered the advice has to say; why believe that tying off while working at heights is essential to safety when the person who told you so also told you safety is your first priority?  If safety truly is your number one priority, don’t work at heights, period. But safety isn’t our number one priority, getting the job done is almost more important than anything else.

The effectiveness of a safety professional depends on his or her credibility; safety professionals have to stop forcing people to choose between working safely and making a livelihood. One of the most frequent complaints about safety professionals from workers and business leaders is that safety professionals are obstructionist policemen who, however well intentioned, don’t live in the real world.  People gravitate toward the practical and tend to disregard things that don’t make sense, or where they see over whelming evidence to the contrary. Safety professionals have to balance safety against the practical requirements of a job.

I want to be clear that I am not saying that safety isn’t an important criterion for success but there is a difference between saying, “making money is our priority, but we can’t in conscience make money while hurting workers” and saying “safety is our number one priority”.  Hurting workers costs money and is poor business practice, but when safety professionals makes the claim that their function, safety, is the primary reason a company exists, nobody in their right minds can take them seriously.

Safety professionals need to shift their thinking when it comes to worker safety, away from “safety as the right thing to do” to “safety as a crucial improvement initiative”. It may sound like I am nit-picking but the words we use shape how our constituents view us and whether or not they find us credible.  A safety professional without credibility is worse than ineffective; he or she is taking a job that an effective safety professional could otherwise be doing.

Safety isn’t a priority; it’s a value and criterion for success.  Frankly, we don’t want safety to be a priority—priorities change and shift where values endure and guide our decision making.  The safe execution of work must be a core value and a guiding behavior in any ethical organization.  Treating workers like chattle, or fuel to be used up in the furtherance of business is morally repugnant.  Safety must go deeper than being a mere priority, it must be the cornerstone of any business that is serious about sustainable success.

Sadly, many of the companies that proudly boast of safety as a priority are some of the worst offenders for putting workers at risk.  In these cases, safety is neither a priority nor a value.  Safety at these hell holes only becomes a priority after catastrophe strikes and then only when the climate of fear and retribution is in full swing.  When the smoke clears and the blood is mopped up, these companies quickly revert to bad behaviors and more misguided behaviors.

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