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Safety First? No, Not Really

While safety is important, putting safety first sends the wrong message to our organization. Here's why.

by Richard D. Fulwiler, Sc.D., CIH

Safety first! Is this an empty, time-worn slogan or a forceful admonition to senior line management that they heed relentlessly?

We know the answer. It is unrealistic to think that senior line management will day in, day out place safety above all else. I am not saying that senior line management is irresponsible, uncaring or numb to the contribution and importance of safety. In fact, there is a powerful incentive to enroll senior line management in an ownership role for safety, but the way to do it is not by trumpeting a hollow slogan.

Why shouldnt safety be first? For the simple reason that safety must be an integral part of line managements responsibility. In that regard, safety should rank right up there with the other primary objectives of the enterprise such as productivity, quality and cost. It need not rank higher and it should not rank lower.

A number of years ago, I was presented with a thought-provoking question: What would the implications be if senior line management simply managed safety the same way it manages other sustaining priorities such as production, cost or quality? The implications are powerful. This article is intended to provide a process for making this happen.

Fundamental Breakthrough

One of the fundamental breakthroughs in a company broadly recognized for health and safety excellence was its line management being brought to the realization that the very same leadership and management skills used in achieving outstanding production, quality and cost could deliver similar results for health and safety. In other words, line managers have the skills to achieve health and safety excellence. They either do not see it that way or they do not see health and safety lending itself to the management systems they use for production, quality and cost.

When health and safety managers finally get the ear of senior line management, they rarely choose to communicate in the language of the customer. Instead, they talk about job safety analysis, incident investigations, lost workday cases, OSHA incidence rates, etc. Certainly, all of these have their place, but the line managers impression at this point is apt to be: That stuff isnt in my skill base. As a result, they reject their ownership role for health and safety. After all, their expertise is achieving production, quality and cost objectives, not health and safety.

The scenario above is best described as a lost opportunity to enroll line management in its proper ownership role. Line management needs to be taught, or convinced, that safety is not first but rather an equal held to the same level as production, quality and cost. More importantly, they need to be convinced that those same skills they use to achieve production, quality and cost will work in achieving health and safety results.

Dan Petersen made this point eloquently in Why Safety is a People Problem (Occupational Hazards, January 1997). Petersen stated: For their part, managers must learn that they have to do things within their line management structure on a regular basis...that produces safe behaviors. He added: The organization must unleash their management skills on safety problems.

Four Steps to Ownership

How do we get line management enrolled in the safety process to the extent they own it and lead it? Lets break this task down into four steps:

1) Get off the Safety First kick if that is your current mind-set.

Instead, find out what the top two to four objectives of your enterprise are. It is a good bet that production, quality or cost will have a presence, but there could be others.

2) Adopt a management systems approach to safety.

In other words, do not approach safety as a problem to be solved. Furthermore, be sure you are not focusing on after the fact or lagging edge measures of safety performance, such as lost workday cases or total incidence rate. Instead, build a management systems approach that has the same elements used to achieve the most important objectives of your enterprise that you identified in Step 1. Such a system should focus on before the fact or leading edge measures. The system could include:

  • Clear expectations for health and safety established by senior management.
  • Management and employee involvement in a real and significant way.
  • The establishment of goals and action plans to achieve those goals.
  • Technical and regulatory standards and requirements.
  • Behavior-based safe practices built from job safety analysis.
  • Employee training.
  • Specialized training for designated health and safety resources.
  • Behavior observation sampling.
  • Behavior feedback (includes confrontation and positive reinforcement).
  • Performance and results tracking.

When the elements for this system are put in place, you have a before the fact system that can drive continuous improvement, not an after the fact system focusing on solving the problem of the day.

3. Get line managements buy-in that safety should be one of the top objectives of the business.

Meet with line management and share your observation that safety need not be first but should be of equal rank to the other two to four top objectives you identified in Step 1.

Now is your chance to score a real breakthrough. Come prepared to demonstrate how improved safety can play a key role in supporting the achievement of one or more of those top two to four objectives of the business.

For example, assume productivity is one of the key business objectives. Improved safety can positively impact productivity and not with simple humanitarian platitudes. You need to point out that productivity is impacted when a serious, or even a minor, injury occurs. Convert all the time lost, replacement cost, medical and workers compensation expenses, retraining, management time spent, etc. to real dollars. Estimate the total cost for a plant or a department and express the cost in the same terms used by line management to measure productivity, not in the jargon of the safety professional. This could be in terms of cents per labor hour, impact on unit costs or increased return on net assets.

Now mention to them that they can make a significant improvement in safety results that will impact other key business objectives if they choose to apply their management and leadership skills to safety just as they do to other primary objectives. The key to making this sale to line management is to describe a management systems approach similar to that described above in Step 2. Help them recognize how this is the same approach they use in managing productivity, quality and cost.

4.Create the linkage.

OK, you got their attention. Now, your job is to train them on how they can apply their management and leadership skills in deploying and executing the management systems approach for safety. At this point, you need to facilitate their linkage with safety. You need to help them see that their primary roles are to:

  • Set the EXPECTATIONS for the entire organization.
  • COMMUNICATE these expectations to the organization. That is not your job.
  • Demonstrate COMMITMENT to these expectations during tours, meetings and one-on-one discussions.
  • Provide reasonable RESOURCES; i.e., provide the right to succeed.
  • Track progress and hold the organization ACCOUNTABLE.
  • RECOGNIZE and REWARD progress and performance.


If you pick up any book on basic management, you will more than likely find two primary tenets that are embodied in this discussion. First, management is a process based on a systematic approach to achieving identifiable objectives; i.e., a management systems approach. Second, the fundamental roles of a manager are to: Set expectations; communicate those expectations; demonstrate involvement and commitment to those expectations; provide the necessary resources; track and hold the organization accountable; and recognize and reward progress and performance. Sound familiar? It should. Imagine the progress that can come from getting line management to apply those same management and leadership skills to safety as to their other top two to four business objectives. All this comes when safety is not first but when it is equal to the other objectives.

Richard D. Fulwiler, Sc.D., CIH , is president of Transformational Leadership Associates, Cincinnati, Ohio. He is the former director, health and safetyworldwide for Procter & Gamble Co. and a past president of the American Academy of Industrial Hygiene.

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