SAFETY CULTURE & ACCOUNTABILITY
The Gap Between Safety Rhetoric & Safety Commitment
By Barbara Semeniuk
Safety is like the weather. Folks love to talk about it but they don’t do much to change it. At least that’s the way with a lot of people in the business world. So when I hear management go out of their way to proclaim safety as the primary goal, I can only roll my eyes. As safety professionals, we need to ensure that the clients we serve back rhetoric with real action.
Safety Actions Speak Louder than Empty Words
I remember doing an audit at a major waste management company that was losing about $550 million a year from accidents. Workers were regularly getting killed on the job. The president of this company came out with a program: "Zero accidents is our goal." Let’s just say I was a bit skeptical.
They hired a crack team of safety experts in Canada who had CRSPs and a passion for doing the right thing. I admired their enthusiasm and optimism. And I figured they’d last 6 months. They actually made it to 9. Then they were all fired. Sadly, they were the victim of their own success. You see, they really were making a difference and doing what they believed they had been hired to do.
And that was the problem. They were working at a company with a culture that valued production goals over safety. In management’s eyes, $550 million and the loss of a few lives was a price worth paying. Even if they had been sincere about turning things around, the Zero Accidents thing was almost doomed to fail. Companies just don’t go from half a billion in losses to zero accidents in one fell swoop—unless they’re incredibly lucky. Sure enough, by January when the first accident occurred, the Zero Accident objective was out of reach. Appropriate, really.
Safety Performance Is About Results
Sadly, I’ve seen the scenario lots of times before. Another company in the tire business tried to convince me for 6 years that they really cared about health and safety. They had pictures of lions eating their prey and compared sales results to this process. I tried over and over again to persuade them to chase their safety numbers as aggressively as their sales quotas. I told them if they dedicated even a fraction of the same energy to safety, they’d be one of the best rather than worst safety performers in the industry.
It all fell on deaf ears. The company had a wonderful H&S officer who took exception to my audacity in actually questioning her safety program. Why, ours is the best safety program in the business, she insisted—KPIs, the latest theories in effective safety management, you name it.
But for all of the bells and whistles, workers were still getting injured on a regular basis. She became very angry when I pointed this out. You’re measuring the stores on sales, not safety numbers, I said. That’s why safety results aren’t reaching down to the store level. But we fine them $250 a month if they don’t comply with our H&S standards, she retorted. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Companies that don’t put their money where their mouth is when it comes to safety have a tendency to engage in audit shopping. They don’t believe auditors who point out the flaws in their programs and are persuaded that there must be something wrong with the audit process itself. So they look around for auditors who deliver the message they want to hear. Of course, that’s a message no honest auditor should ever be willing to deliver.
Safety is about results and accountability, not fancy policies and procedures. Heck, Enron had some of the finest corporate policies ever written against dishonesty and management malfeasance and we all know how that turned out. As a safety consultant, I can’t help but be cynical after all these years. And I fire clients. I only work for the companies that really do care about safety—the ones that measure performance objectively and hold people in the organization accountable for results. Thank goodness, there are still a few of those companies around.
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