Editorial: The 95 Percent Solution

Oct. 21, 2004
Your marching orders: Cut your staff in half and improve our safety performance. And by the way, it's time to look at the big picture.

Most safety people don't accept change very well," a veteran safety consultant told me recently. He recalled that when he received his safety education 30 years ago, he was taught to do inspections, audits, investigations and training. "We're basically doing the same things today. Show me another profession that has not changed in 30 years."

While the idea that safety has not changed is overstated, it is no exaggeration that many of our readers are struggling mightily with the changes they are living through in the workplace. The era of large company safety staffs and a focus on regulatory compliance is coming to a close. The economy is service- and information-based, so fewer traumatic injuries and deaths are occurring in companies. Now, the injuries plaguing companies are sprains and strains costly but more subtle.

But if we are unlikely to see increases in safety staffs in the future, said this consultant, that doesn't mean that companies are going to deemphasize safety. Instead, he argues, they are going to expect a safety manager or downsized EHS department to achieve improved safety results. The drive for that will come from a continued emphasis on reducing costs.

The Big Picture

In his view, safety professionals are focused on too small a slice of the accident picture. He notes that approximately 100,000 unintentional deaths occur each year in the United States. Motor vehicles account for 44,000 deaths, while 33,000 fatalities occur in the home and nearly 20,000 occur in the community, according to the National Safety Council. On-the-job accidents, where the safety profession focuses much of its attention, account for nearly 5,000 of those deaths. "We in the safety profession work on the 5 percent," said this consultant. "Shouldn't we work on the other 95 percent?"

Companies traditionally have collected their safety and health data in a variety of silos, he noted, with each area managed by different people. For safety, the measure of cost primarily has been workers' compensation. But as companies integrate their data for health and benefits, they will see that they are paying a significant amount for off-the-job injuries and a variety of lifestyle-related health costs.

According to a National Safety Council survey conducted in 2003, 60 percent of company respondents believed that the costs of off-the-job injuries were equal to or greater than the cost of workplace injuries. The survey also indicated that the room for error in assessing these costs is likely to be very great, as only a quarter of the respondents said their companies keep records of off-the-job injuries.


Manufacturing and construction have tended to invest the most in workplace safety because these sectors most obviously saw the costs of injury and illness. But as service companies assess these integrated injury and illness costs, this safety veteran believes, they will also begin investing more in safety and health. This will drive management to want safety professionals to take a more comprehensive role in injury prevention and health promotion.

So what will these companies be looking for? This consultant agrees with many in the field that top management will seek generalists who know how to drive safety responsibility through organizations rather than play the safety cop. As the relative importance of compliance diminishes, he said, safety managers will need to rely on good communication and marketing skills to sell managers and employees on the value of safety and health on and off the job. He said they will also have to stretch limited resources by taking greater advantage of technology, such as computer-based safety training.

"The CEOs are going to say, 'I want you to cut your staff in half and improve our safety performance,'" said the consultant. "You do that with technology and outsourcing. With a consultant, you only pay for what you need."

In his view, many "traditional" safety managers are resisting this change rather than embracing it. "My biggest problem when I go to companies is safety people. They feel as though I am infringing on their turf and I am a threat to them." As a result, he tends to seek out decision-makers in companies who will appreciate what he can do to help them solve their safety problems and improve their safety performance.

"We are at a crossroads in the safety profession," he said. "We have an opportunity to prove our value to employees and upper management. We need to be nontraditionalists, to think outside the box. We need to think the way CEOs think. These companies are not charitable institutions. At the same time, their greatest asset is their employees. Safety protects their greatest asset."

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