The Rise of the Safety Theocracy

theoacracy

By Phil La Duke

“You’d be surprised at how many companies don’t care about losing money”—A colleague when I showed him my presentation and case studies demonstrating my ability to lower companies’ injury costs by millions of dollars.

A few years back I figured out a way to automatically notify companies of lockout violations as they were happening; I was understandably excited…think of the implications! Think of the lives that will be saved! Think of the money I will make! I soon realized that nobody cared.  Fast forward and you find me shilling a safety solution that had a proven track record of lowering the cost of injuries by an average of $2.5 million a year only to find myself summarily dismissed because of a lack of sales—again because nobody seemed that interested in saving money by lowering the cost of injuries.

I was telling these stories to a colleague of mine who responded with the opening quote.  To some improving safety performance to save money is seen as crass, as tacky, and as well…immoral.  To be sure improving safety so that no one gets hurt and everyone gets to go home and to continue to enjoy life (well at least as much as they did before going to work.  I was married  to a nagging shrew of a woman and frankly going home after work wasn’t the height of fine living, but after 26 years of blissful post-divorce bachelorhood I can honestly say that even life with her—such as it was—was better than dying at work or living with her as a cripple (the Bette Davies/Joan Crawford classic Whatever Happened To Baby Jane immediately springs to mind, but as so often the case, I digress) is a laudable goal, but to some it runs deeper.

Some people seem to believe that equating safety with business costs somehow cheapens the goal of keeping people safe, as if saving money lessens the nobility of reducing workplace injuries.  This proselytizing of safety frankly, is getting out of hand.  Why can’t we do the right thing and also make a buck doing so? What is it about quantifying the savings associated with reduced injuries that is, in so many people’s minds, vulgar, distasteful, and wrong?

Until we manage safety like a business element it will remain a quasi-religious movement where decisions are made based on philosophical platitudes versus basic management techniques. Approaching safety on moral grounds is doomed; creating the cult of safety where we perpetuate superstition simply because we want to believe it rather than based on research and facts means we create a sort of safety theocracy where charlatans and gurus dictate how we run our businesses.

This is not to say that good business practices and an ethical and moral approach to our work need be mutually exclusive, quite the contrary. Many companies have shown that they can engage in highly ethical and moral business practices and still make considerable profits. These companies serve as role models for all of us; they represent what can be achieved and to what we should all aspire.

Tracking the cost of injuries allows us to keep score; we use it to gauge the severity of injuries and it helps us to understand the difference between safety improvements caused by picking the proverbial low hanging fruit and those caused by solving deeper systemic issues.

Opponents of tracking the costs of injuries do make some good points.  For example, some worry that if we focus too closely on the costs of injuries we run the risk of losing site of the fact that even if spending money in pursuit of a safer workplace need not return on investment to be a good business decision─since we can never really know what may have happened if we had ignored the risk.  Money spent reducing the chance that someone will be seriously injured or killed is typically money well spent.  If we quantify the cost of injuries do we risk returning to the days when financial professionals calculated the cost of worker deaths as a cost of doing business? Maybe, but I think we are looking at a continuum here.  At one end of this continuum we have businesses who are averse to calculating the cost of injuries and at the other end we have businesses who won’t spend money on safety unless a compelling business case for doing so can be made.  I believe this is a bell-shaped curve where most companies are somewhere very close to the mean and the ones at the extremes represent a very small portion of the population.

Beyond all this there are some practical and sensible reasons for tracking the cost of injuries.  Unless we track the cost of injuries─and track them completely, not with multipliers or estimates but with hard and real measurements─these cost remain an invisible onus that cling barnacle-like to Operations impeding our progress, sapping our productivity, and consuming resources that could be put to more important and valuable efforts.  In other words, our overall performance suffers and we are never truly cognizant of the reasons why.  What other business issue costs us money, and we accept the fact that we don’t know how much it costs? In what other function can we spend money without knowing or caring how much.

So should we calculate the costs or does doing so make us less committed to doing what is right just because it’s right? The essence of engagement IS doing what is right, not out of self-interest or for an external reward, but for no other reason than because it is right.  Like so many issues I have taken something simple and made it complicated.

When my colleague said to me, “you would be surprised at how many companies don’t carry about losing money” I thought, “how could these companies be so short-sighted?” But  having interacted with some companies who honestly don’t care what the cost of safety is, not because they are short sighted but so adamant about safety, I have to say that I was probably being too harsh, but the most successful companies don’t shy away from quantifying their injury costs, and proudly stand at the intersection of morality and fiscal enlightenment.

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