Safety Summit Calls for Leaders

Carrying a potent mix of hope and frustration, old and new faces gathered in Washington, D.C., to map a new course for safety and health.

Anyone who went to the "Workplace Safety Summit" expecting to hear the usual recitation of facts, figures and excuses about the current situation was probably astonished by the outcome.

In an event where most speeches were laced with passion and conviction about the overriding importance of workplace safety, two newly prominent voices stood out: U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and Ron Hayes of the FIGHT Project, each of whom received standing ovations.

But will the event, held March 29-30 at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, "be a powerful catalyst for ongoing change," as stated by McDonough's dean and summit organizer, Christopher Puto?

While many attendees left filled with new hope, it will take some time before the real impact of the summit is known.

O'Neill: Safety Is a Precondition

At the summit, the need for strong national leadership in workplace safety and health was the dominant theme, something repeatedly expressed by representatives from a variety of organizations. In this context, many attendees thought the high point of the event was the provocative luncheon talk by O'Neill.

"I think that's the first time I've ever heard a Cabinet-level figure speak passionately about safety," said Paul Tebo, DuPont's vice president of safety, health and environment.

O'Neill began by noting that, these days, he turns down most offers to speak, "but I couldn't wait to accept the invitation to talk to you about workplace safety, my favorite subject."

The former Alcoa chairman explained how, as chief executive officer, he cut the company's lost-workday rate from 1.86 to 0.14. From the beginning, O'Neill said he insisted that the company's goal had to be "to get to zero," and he held himself and those under him accountable for every incident. As an example of what this meant, he gave workers at Alcoa plants his home telephone number and told them to call him if their plant managers failed to follow up on improving safety.

One of the sessions at the summit was devoted to "deriving value" from workplace safety, and participants expressed a great deal of interest in making the business case for safety and health. O'Neill startled many in his audience, however, when he recounted telling his top financial staff at Alcoa: "If you ever calculate how much money we save as a consequence of excellence in safety and health, you're fired." He explained that the effort to get to zero incidents would fail if people at Alcoa saw it as just another management scheme to save money. "This needs to be about human value. Safety is not a priority, it is a precondition."

The most provocative idea in O'Neill's talk was his proposal to make all OSHA standards advisory and have the government shut down any business with a lost-workday rate over 2.0.

"I guarantee you, 95 [percent] to 98 percent of all the organizations in America would get under 2.0," he said. An OSHA spokesperson said the agency had no comment on the proposal, and it is uncertain how far O'Neill will go with the idea.

O'Neill said he is hard at work to improve the safety performance of the Treasury Department. Whether the summit will lead to ongoing change may depend, in part, on whether the secretary will use his considerable influence to advance the safety agenda beyond the Treasury.

Important No-Shows

Another big question raised, but not answered, by the summit is whether the various safety and health stakeholder groups can put aside their differences and work together to solve problems.

Labor representatives expressed bitterness and mistrust toward the Bush administration and business groups because of their success in killing the OSHA ergonomics regulation. Although summit organizers said they invited representatives from the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, no one from either group attended. One major problem aired by many summit attendees was the need to improve small business' commitment to safety and health. As if to prove the point, it appeared that almost no one from the small-business community showed up.

The 150 people who attended included government officials and representatives from a number of large corporations, nonprofit safety organizations and labor unions.

This raised the question, alluded to in the opening remarks by DuPont CEO Chad Holliday, whether summit speakers were "preaching to the choir."

DuPont, one of six co-sponsors of the event, has a business unit devoted to selling safety and health services and paid for the lion's share of the summit's expenses.

OSHA sent a representative, but with the administrator position still empty, acting Policy Director Frank Frodyma appeared to be more of an attentive observer than an active participant. In one sign of the winds of change, however, Frodyma praised long-time OSHA critic Hayes for his work in getting the agency to be more sensitive to victims' families. Hayes, a 2000 winner of the Champions of Safety contest sponsored by Occupational Hazards, single-handedly began the FIGHT (Families in Grief Hold Together) project after his son was killed in a grain elevator.

One unusual feature of the summit was the low level of participation by the two most prominent safety and health professional organizations. There was no representative from the American Society of Safety Engineers, though organizers said someone had been invited. There were representatives from the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA), but one of the main points they made was to decry the possibly more-than-symbolic decision to leave the word "health" out of the event's "workplace safety summit" title.

In one of the major speeches of the summit, AFL-CIO's Peg Seminario clearly did not share Holliday's worry that she was preaching to the choir about safety and health. She lambasted her audience -- mentioning AIHA by name -- for "sitting out" the recent ergonomics battle.

Seminario concluded, "The summit was a fine idea, but unless there is public leadership on these issues, we are going to be back here in another 10 years talking about the same issues."

A version of this idea, that the CEOs of the nation's largest corporations should come together and make a public commitment to address occupational health and safety, became one of the major conclusions of the summit.

Other key messages of the summit that emerged during final wrap-up sessions:

  • The need for better ways of measuring safety and health performance to help define its business value;
  • Identify objectives everyone can agree on that will lead to joint action; and
  • Find ways to change the culture so that occupational safety and health is seen as a crucial concern.

Turning Inspiration into Perspiration

If success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration, perhaps the biggest open question raised by the Georgetown safety summit is whether the "fire in the belly" expressed by its speakers will evoke the enduring commitment of those in the safety and health community.

One of the most significant results of the summit may be the hardest to detect, at least at first. A number of attendees said they left the summit with new ideas for future alliances and initiatives, though they were unwilling to go into details because these notions are still inchoate.

"Everyone came away with a heightened understanding of the breadth of issues," Jim Wick, corporate health and safety manager at Intel, told Occupational Hazards after the summit.

Some summit attendees spoke of seeing occupational health and safety become a "movement," one of many ways in which attendees hoped to learn from the success of environmentalists in propelling their cause to the center of the national agenda. There were proposals for launching a media campaign using celebrities and victims to put "a human face on safety."

Keeping a focus on the human dimension of occupational safety and health may have been what most distinguished the Georgetown summit from other similar conferences. When a speaker drifted into the abstractions of policy or data, a FIGHT project member often would stand up and tell the heart-breaking story of what it means to lose a son or a daughter to a workplace "accident."

One of the most poignant moments during the two-day event came when Hayes rose to confront summit attendees who were discussing the need for national leadership.

"The fact is, you all are not doing your jobs, and this is why I lost my son," Hayes told his audience. "The leaders we need are right here in this room."

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