“Safety is our first priority”. Have you heard that before? Seen it in the introduction to a companies safety programs? Read it in a company’s safety policy? Seen it on placards around construction sites? It’s pretty common place but what does it mean? Do these companies expect anyone to believe that they really place safety above profit? That they will structure their tenders in ways that place the safety of their employees above all other considerations and will refuse to take on work that will threaten the health and safety of their employees? Is that what they mean? Or do they mean that safety performance is given the same amount of time and attention at the senior management and board meetings as financial performance is? Or that individual safety performance is the most important criteria in performance appraisals and promotional considerations?
In the same way as the HR catch-cry of the 1980s and 90s -“our people are our most valuable resource” – didn’t stop companies creating new words and new justifications for sacking huge numbers of their workforce. So companies undertake substantial verbal gymnastics to justify their commitment to ridiculous concepts such as “safety is our first priority” and “Zero Harm” while their workers are injured and killed. The very notion that workplace safety is the most important priority of any business is not only laughable it also damages the status of safety programs within such companies.
The Down Side of Unrealistic Safety Programs
Do managers or safety people honestly believe that workers are taken-in by these types of statements? Workers are at the pointy end of the business; they are fully aware of the real priorities of the business. They know how safe or dangerous their workplaces are and whether safety is conveniently forgotten when production requires it. They can tell when a safety program is all smoke and mirrors and catchy slogans or whether it’s genuine and producing real changes to make the workplace safer. If they perceive a safety program as non-genuine they will simply ignore it and not buy into it. The damage there is short term, the longer term damage is the cynicism that these types of programs generate and not just toward safety programs. After all, if a business will lie about its safety priorities in such a public fashion what else will they lie about?
A Dose of Reality
Let’s be honest, safety will never be the first priority of any business and nor should it be. The first priority of any business, within reason, is actually staying in business. There’s no point having the safest workplace in the world if the business is bankrupt and nobody works there. Safety is one of the priorities a company has along with financial performance, the environment, industrial relations, quality, production, etc. Management’s role is to balance these matters and that is a constant juggling act as they are expected to do more with less and the relative importance of these things ebbs and wanes. Sure there are minimum standards set by law in all areas of business operations and while these have to be met, exceeding them will depend upon the company’s ability to afford it.
Challenging the Status Quo
Mike Rowe, TV’s Dirty Jobs guy, got into some trouble for actually voicing similar views. The editor of ISHN, Dave Johnson gave Rowe a serve when Rowe commented on his website that:
Of all the platitudes embraced in the workplace there is none more pervasive, erroneous, overused and dangerous than ‘Safety First!“In the jobs I have seen thus far, I can tell you with certainty, that safety, while always a major consideration, is never the priority. Never. Never, ever. Not even once. Making money is more important than safety — always.
In his response, Rowe provides some background to his statements as well as some of his experiences with “safety officers” that aren’t all that glowing.
Although Johnson makes some valid criticisms of Rowe’s on-air performances, it’s unfortunate that he displays an underlying belief that safety is or at least should be the first priority of business.
Let’s be Honest
So, let’s be honest about our safety programs. Let’s acknowledge that safety isn’t our first priority, lets acknowledge that workplaces will never be risk free and that, despite our best efforts, injuries will always occur. The goal should be to reduce the chances of injury happening as far as possible not pretending that they can be eliminated. Let’s ground our safety programs in reality not fantasy.