Destroying the Cult of Safety

By Phil La Duke

Many people have challenged my position that we need to treat safety as a business element, something that has a cost associated with it and that cost has to be managed. My critics say I am too cold blooded, that there is so much more to safety than saving money: it’s the right thing to do.  First of all, when you tell an executive that we have to do this or that because, “It’s the right thing to do” you do two things.  First you insult the executive by implying that he or she doesn’t know right from wrong, and second you are asking the executive to take your word for it instead of putting together a business case.

I have never once met an executive who said, “You know, I would LOVE to hurt more workers, maybe even kill some, but we just don’t have the money for that.” Executives KNOW safety is the right thing to do, and unless your company is run by Satan, they probably are prepared to make the workplace as safe as is practicable. I take some guff for advocating making the workplace only as safe as is practicable.  Shouldn’t we make every effort to eliminate all injuries? No.  To do so would be ruinously costly to the company the only way to sustained zero-injuries is through the elimination of all hazards such that we have eliminated all risk and reduced the possibility of injury to zero.  You can achieve sustained zero injuries by bankrupting the company and putting it out of business.  The unemployed seldom get hurt on the job. But the allure of zero has achieved cult like status among safety nitwits and it is spreading like a cancer to the executive suite.  It needs to be eradicated.

I have endured, both in writing and in person, the sanctimonious lectures of the soft-headed bleeding hearts who insist that zero-injuries is the way, and the truth, and the light. I’m not buying it.  Money is the way to get leadership’s attention, but the problem is, most people don’t know how to calculate the cost and use the formula’s provided by OSHA or the National Safety Council.  Unfortunately for those who use those multipliers many executives will look at those costs and say, those aren’t OUR numbers, and well…they’re right.

It doesn’t take long to calculate the cost of injuries and it’s not hard if you know where to look. I guess I should make the point that there are three kinds of costs: direct, indirect, and associated costs.  I can argue which costs are in which category all day and frankly that’s the kind of purely academic argument that makes some National Conferences so pointless.  Sufficed to say I could argue these points all day…but I’m not gonna.

So where do we begin? We have to deal primarily with direct costs and only those indirect costs that can be accurately quantified. This isn’t as difficult as it might seem although some people in your organization may guard their secret information like some Tolkien villain.  We generally know how long it took to respond to an injury—I have gone so far as to require the incident investigation to identify the time of the injury and the time that work resumed. If we know how much time we spent and we know the wages of the people involved we have a firm cost for an individual injury.  It won’t take long to convince leadership that the money they are spending on worker injuries far exceeds insurance co-pays or Workers’ Compensation costs.

Here is an example of a VERY simplified version of a tool I use to determine the cost of injuries.

injury-calculatorAs you can see wages are far more than just those wasted paying an injured worker to be treated.  In many organizations an uninjured worker must escort the injured worker to the hospital or clinic and wait there for the injured person to be treated.  Of course in addition to wages there are costs associated with treating the worker which can also be substantial, and finally there are operational losses—like the case of a person who cut his hand while working at a grain silo and the entire several tons of grain was tainted and could no longer be sold. Or it might be the material used to make car seats that must be scrapped because it is now blood stained.

As I said, it’s easy to see how one can get legitimately calculate an alarmingly high number for each injury. One piece of advice, however, don’t push it too far.  While every penny counts if you push the envelop of quantifiable costs you can lose all credibility.  Your calculations need to be like Ivory Soap—99.44% pure. Just like the grain with a couple of drops of blood in it just a little bullshit taints the entire figure. What’s more is it’s highly unlikely that you’ll have to exaggerate the costs.  The money will speak for itself, and oh yeah, it really IS the right thing to do.