The Corner Cubicle: Are You the 64 Percentor the 36 Percent?

Maybe there needs to be an "Occupy" movement to call attention to the 36 percent of our readers who say their employers prioritize production over safety.

Remember the "Occupy" movement – the grassroots effort to fight back against the power brokers of Wall Street and corporate America? While it might not have inspired the kind of revolution that its founders had envisioned, it succeeded in at least raising awareness of the disproportionate influence that the richest 1 percent wield over the rest of us. 

In too many organizations, the pull of production wields disproportionate influence over workplace safety and health – which boggles the mind, considering that a banged-up workforce hurts productivity and eats into profits.  

In EHS Today's 2014 National Safety Survey, 64 percent of respondents said their employers prioritize safety over production. That's a good thing. Still, 36 percent of employers are on the wrong side of that data point.

I know I'm preaching to the choir here, but it bears repeating that when production takes precedence over safety, bad things happen. 

Take the story of Janio Salinas, for example. On Feb. 25, 2013, the 50-year-old temporary worker died inside a sugar hopper in a CSC Sugar factory near Philadelphia. An article by the nonprofit newsroom ProPublica describes the circumstances leading up to his death:

"Throughout the morning, Salinas and a handful of other workers had been bagging mounds of sugar for a company that supplies the makers of Snapple drinks and Ben & Jerry's ice cream. But sugar clumps kept clogging the massive hopper, forcing the workers to climb inside with shovels to help the granules flow out the funnel-like hole at the bottom.

"Coming back from lunch that day in February 2013, one employee said he had seen Salinas digging in the sugar. But when he looked back, Salinas was gone. All that remained was a shovel buried up to its handle. Then, peering through a small gap in the bottom of the hopper, someone noticed what appeared to be blue jeans.

It was Salinas. He had been buried alive in sugar."

OSHA investigators discovered that 13 days before the accident, the plant manager had ordered workers to remove a screen designed to prevent the hopper from clogging. The reason? Because it was slowing down production.

Had the screen been in place, Salinas might be alive today.

If the facts alleged by OSHA are true, Salinas's death is another senseless casualty in the war between production and safety. While the 64 percent of companies that take a safety-first approach to production should be commended for doing business the right way, it's the 36 percent that tend to dominate the headlines – because they're the ones killing people and blowing up factories.

"Production vs. Safety: Sugar Plant Removed Safety Device 13 Days Before Temp Worker's Death"

I'm willing to wager that a fair number of firms in the 64 percent category once belonged to the 36 percent camp, their safety cultures born from the blood of fallen workers, whose deaths taught them that production-first is no way to conduct business sustainably. 

How, then, do EHS professionals convince their organizations to embrace safety before a workplace tragedy delivers a fatal – and expensive – wake-up call? That's the million-dollar question, of course. Much of it hinges on the efficacy of their efforts to educate all stakeholders on the tangible and intangible benefits of safety. EHS professionals know that a healthy workforce is a productive and profitable one – but what about supervisors and middle managers?

The good news is that nearly 80 percent of survey respondents indicated that senior management provides "active and visible support" for EHS initiatives in their respective organizations – an essential ingredient for safety. But with only 64 percent of respondents working in safety-first environments, there's a disconnect somewhere.

Maybe senior leaders need to be even more active and visible – not just walking the plant floor, but reminding middle managers that safe production is the only acceptable way to do business. Or maybe employers need to be more aggressive in tying safety performance to bonuses and compensation packages. 

Whatever the answers are, we know that EHS professionals will continue to beat the drum for safety, and they'll continue to fight the good fight. Unlike other wars, though, no one has to die for safety to emerge victorious. 

Send an e-mail with your thoughts to [email protected].

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