Who Wants Safety?


By Phil La Duke

Why don’t people care about the costs of savings associated with reducing injuries? I have devoted my career in safety trying to sell the idea that: a) injuries cost money that returns no value; b) the right improvements not only will pay for themselves, but will show a return on investment; and c) there is nothing gauche or vulgar about saving money along with saving lives, in other words just because you save money by lowering injuries doesn’t mean you care any less about the human costs of injuries.

It would appear to be a no brainer, wouldn’t it? If you could spend $150,000 and see a tenfold return on the money, while at the same time reducing human suffering wouldn’t it just make unequivocal sense to do so? Yet companies will spend ten times that much without a ghost of a hope of getting a sustainable return on the money they spend.

For some companies saving a couple of million dollars a facility is thought of as practically not worth the effort it would take to earn it. I had an executive tell me more than once that the cost of injuries is inconsequential compared to the other costs associated with running their respective businesses. What they fail to recognize is that these dollars represent the seriousness of an injury, so while an 80% reduction in injury costs may seem like chump change compared to savings in even a small improvement in productivity, injury dollars represent misery. They forget about all the ancillary payoffs associated with less blood money spent. They forget about all the other good things that come along side reducing worker injuries.

Other companies are so heavily invested in a water-headed methodology or philosophy that they can’t see tear themselves away from it to try something potentially more effective. Day after day they throw good money after bad. It’s the business equivalent of having a car or a home that is just a money pit—you justify spending more money than you should because you already spent more money than you should have. I’ve seen this phenomenon more time than I can count. “I’d love to try this methodology but we just heavily invested in brand x” or “brand x is so much a part of our culture that I doubt we can justify quitting.” In both cases, the safety function went to the matt and vouched for a particular approach, and now they have to defend it, particularly if it doesn’t work. It’s like the old joke about the restaurant where the food was awful and they didn’t give you enough of it. I know safety directors who spent gobs of money on something that failed to deliver and lost their jobs because they advocated for something that didn’t work.

Finally, in some cases the organization is so zealous about Safety the philosophy they can’t sully the sacred the purity of their intentions by saving money. The mere mention of saving money by reducing injuries is considered so base, so crude that they won’t even listen. “Preventing injuries is just the right thing to do, we don’t care about the money it costs or saves.” I can fully understand not wanting to seem mercenary or money grubbing, but speaking as someone who lost a father and brother-in-law (not the same person I am not entirely the product of incest) to industrial illnesses, have had two brothers seriously injured on the job, and had both grandfathers and a great uncle killed on the job, I am no stranger to the depth of human suffering that workplace injuries and fatalities can cause. But I can’t quantify those deaths, I can’t give you a figure that would adequately compensate me or my family for those deaths or injuries.

So why are so many companies so completely disinterested in saving money by reducing injuries? I was speaking to a fellow consultant when I was speaking to a fellow consultant who agreed that it was difficult to sell safety using dollars and sense (not a typo all you uptight sexually frustrated wannabe editors). In the final estimation he said it best. “You have to want safety, and either you want it or you don’t.”