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Dominic Cooper PhD is an independent researcher who has authored many books, articles and scientific research papers on safety culture, behavioural-safety and leadership.
October 14, 2014

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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

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Mary Darlington
Mary Darlington
9 years ago

I agree fully with your comments. Companies that manage health and safety well, manage everything well. They simply give it the resources it needs and accept that mainstreaming good health and safety into all management decisions and all operations is simply the cost of doing business and is good for business. I have worked with organisations who initially subscribed to putting health and safety first above production but when tested (production v safety) they fell down badly and all credibility was lost. Equally I have worked with fantastic companies who have sustained this belief. There are some wonderful employers out… Read more »

Mike Kelly
Mike Kelly
9 years ago

Absolutely, couldn’t agree more.
Accepting accidents and ill health, together with prosecutions by HSE, as merely a business cost, is outrageous as a business culture-but there are plenty of organisations exhibiting these cultures out there

Paul Simpson
Paul Simpson
9 years ago

An interesting blog post that raised a couple of questions for me. Firstly I don’t remember enphasis on production / productivity being assigned as a root cause but that poor maintenance processes were. This might be a moot point but the recommendation from Cullen were for an improved safety culture. Again this does not contradict with emphasis on productivity. Network Rail’s new Chief Executive, Mark Carne’s Safety Vision statement says ‘Outstanding safety performance and outstanding business performance go hand in hand. In my expewrience this is true. Organization’s that look after safety perform well – they are just good at… Read more »

Chris Williams
Chris Williams
9 years ago

During one incident in a former workplace of mine, I had to stop an employee from entering a potentially dangerous environment When questioned by their supervisor as to why I had stopped the job, I stated that I did not feel that a sufficient risk assessment of the situation had been completed. The potential consequences of them carrying on may have involved slipping into a tank which still had the remnants of a caustic mixture remaining at the bottom of the tank and their sole defence was a chemical resistant overall. When we looked at their system of work in… Read more »