Editorial: Absent Without Leave

July 14, 2004
After looking at their performance in safety, it's time to take top managers out to the woodshed.

Does top management in your organization provide active and visible support for occupational safety and health? When nearly 900 occupational safety professionals answered that question in the 2004 National Safety Survey, some 79 percent said, "Yes." Is that number encouraging or not?

Since our readers more than likely represent the companies most interested in occupational safety and are employed in some of the most potentially high-hazard companies in the United States, I'd give their top managers a low "B" on their safety scorecard. They're moving in the right direction, but there is plenty of room for improvement.

If we polled top managers and asked them if they actively support quality or profitability or productivity, we'd certainly see a much higher percentage in the affirmative. We know that these topics are brought up routinely in meetings and examined closely. They are also built into performance evaluations and made a substantial part of how managers are rewarded each year. But despite the assurances that "employees are our most important resource," workplace safety all too often remains a subject that top managers ignore.

Safety leaders have recognized this persistent deficiency in organizations. "It is easier (more expensive but easier) to neglect workplace health and safety than it is to manage it effectively," Larry Hansen wrote last month in "The Covenants of the ROSE." As he pointed out, "How leaders lead, determines how managers manage, and how managers manage, directly impacts how employees perform... including safe vs. unsafe." (Those who want to find out more about these precepts and how to put them into action in their companies should register for our Webcast, "Redefining Operational Safety Excellence," which will be held July 20. Visit www.occupational hazards.com/webcast for more details).

There is certainly nothing new or revolutionary about the necessity for leadership in safety. In Industrial Safety is Good Business: The DuPont Story, William J. Mottel, Joseph F. Long and David E. Morrison wrote, "DuPont found that the necessary commitment to safety on the part of operating people is unlikely unless that commitment begins at the top level of management. And it must be carried out on a daily basis at every other level of management and down through every nonsupervisory employee." The authors noted that the demands on CEOs are heavy and often conflicting, but that this does not excuse them from the need to be passionately committed to safety. "The CEO must talk and write about safety and when possible be seen where the work is done on the plant [floor], in the laboratory or in the offices," they wrote.

In her excellent article, "Breaking the Cycle of Mistrust to Build a Positive Safety Culture" (pg. 45), Rosa Antonia Carrillo examines the importance that employees place on management involvement with safety. "It was clear that employees perceived the lack of visible presence as lack of interest. We asked employees why it is so important to see the top person. They said they cannot trust decisions made by managers who have never been to the job site, haven't demonstrated visible concern, competence or interest in learning about the real challenges workers face. They saw visibility as a symbol of the importance managers placed on safety."

The sad part about this failure on the part of top managers is that they usually don't intend to neglect safety. Few would genuinely not support the value of keeping employees safe and healthy. They instinctively know that healthy employees benefit the company in terms of productivity and lower health costs. But they fail to appreciate that their silence is deafening and their lack of involvement crippling.

Happily, it is not really that difficult for them to fix. When a CEO whispers, it sounds like a roar to employees. If they spent the first 5 minutes of each operating meeting on safety performance, it would send a clear and unmistakable signal to the organization. If they toured a plant and asked employees and supervisors three questions about safety, it would entrench in their minds that safety is a concern of the company. And if that CEO sent an annual e-mail to all employees discussing the importance of safety and health for them, their families and the organization as a whole, it would have tremendous impact. Is any of that hard to do?

The majority of the leaders at companies in our National Safety Survey show support for safety. It's long past time all of them did.

This month, we welcome Cynthia L. Roth, chairperson and CEO of Ergonomic Technologies Corp. (www.ergoworld.com) to our Editorial Advisory Board. Cindy will provide valuable counsel as we continue to expand our coverage of workplace ergonomics.

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