Redressing the balance between safety and productivity
Lord Cullen’s Piper Alpha report said that, “it is essential to create a corporate atmosphere or culture in which safety is understood to be and is accepted as, the number one priority”[i].
For a number of economic and competitive reasons, however, productivity is often the number one priority, not safety. It is often assumed that to achieve production goals, safety has to be sacrificed.
Conversely, companies also face regulatory pressures to create a safe working environment. It is often assumed that compliance will significantly slow down production, or increase costs. In the real-world, the balance between these two pressures creates the so called ‘safety-productivity’ conflict. Whichever wins out determines how company personnel think and behave.
Is it possible to side-step the issue and balance the two so that “Safe Production is understood to be, and is accepted as, the number one priority”?[ii]
I believe so, but what does safe production actually mean? In my view, it is a philosophy whereby everyone recognises their company has to produce to survive and prosper, but it has to do so safely. If there is any doubt, safety wins out.
This is a challenge: it means everyone accepting time delays when a safety issue arises; it means providing additional financial, material, and human resources when necessary, even if inconvenient; and it means stopping work until an identified physical hazard is controlled or eliminated. Ultimately, it means setting the safety bar higher.
Is it realistic to adopt such a philosophy? Evidence shows that it is: those companies with good safety performance tend to be better all-round economic performers[iii],[iv]. This stems from [a] reduced incident rates and absenteeism; [b] improved working conditions and employee motivation; and, [c] better economic-financial performance, due to positive influences on productivity, sales, and profitability.
Of course, it also means the entire company roster has to believe in it, enact it, and sustain it, else it is undermined and simply becomes just another slogan on the wall that people ignore. For the workforce, seeing is believing: any inconsistency between words and deeds will be quickly detected, leading people to withdraw from safety. Without a doubt, people will test the company’s resolve, but if the safe production philosophy is consistently followed, a safety partnership will develop to deliver safety excellence. In turn, this will lead to more effective safety leadership, employee engagement (engaged employees are 5 times less likely to experience an injury)[v], and other benefits.
[i] Cullen, W.D., (1990). The Public Inquiry into the Piper Alpha Disaster. HMSO, London
[ii] Cooper, M.D. & Finley, L.J. (2013) Strategic Safety Culture Roadmap. BSMS, Franklin, IN
[iii] Veltri, A., Pagel, M., Behm, M. & Das, A. (2007). A Data-Based Evaluation of the Relationship between Occupational Safety and Operating Performance. The Journal of SHE Research, 4(1), 1-22.
[iv] Fernández-Muñiz B, Montes-Peón JM, Vázquez-Ordás, CJ. (2009). Relation between occupational safety management and firm performance. Safety Science,.47(7):980-91.
[v] Lockwood, N. R. (2007). Leveraging employee engagement for competitive advantage: HR’s strategic role. HR Magazine, 52(3), 1-11