NSC: Selling Safety in Tough Times

Oct. 29, 2009
Phil La Duke, director of performance improvement at O/E Learning, explained how EHS professionals can sell safety to company leadership – even in challenging economic times.

“The secret to getting [company] operations to value safety is to make safety valuable so they understand it, look at it and like it,” said La Duke, who presented a session at the National Safety Council (NSC) 2009 Congress and Expo in Orlando, Fla.

EHS professionals have a better chance of making a stronger case for safety if they understand company leadership, speak the language and demonstrate the value of safety in relationship to what is important to those leaders, he said.

But first, EHS professionals must overcome a few hurdles.

Barriers to Selling Safety

La Duke outlined the following common roadblocks to selling safety to company leadership:

  • No budget. According to La Duke, this is one of the biggest barriers to selling safety. Even more, the budget often is an excuse for company leadership who really don’t want to address safety; they use it to push safety professionals away.
  • Safety is perceived as discretionary spending. “Sometimes, [safety] is discretionary spending, something it’s not. We have to do know the difference,” La Duke said.
  • Safety is viewed as an overhead cost. Company operations or leadership sometimes assume people inevitably are going to get hurt, and they therefore accept those injuries as an overhead cost.
  • Safety is seen as important but not urgent. While La Duke said it is extremely rare to hear company leadership say that safety is not important, they might not view safety as urgent or as the most important concern.
  • The “We might get lucky” attitude. Company operations may hope things proceed normally without any accidents happening – a dangerous strategy that relies on luck.
  • The company’s recent safety performance has artificially improved. Sometimes, safety performance appears to improve for little or no reason. When that happens, company leadership might question why it’s important to focus on safety.

Keys to Selling Safety

La Duke explained how EHS professionals can overcome those barriers and present safety in a way that ensures it gets attention, no matter what the current economic climate. The bottom line is to meet company leadership’s needs and to show how safety fits it with the organization’s goals and success.

“If you can get more part of the way they do business, part of the day-to-day team, the more indispensable you become and you can get what you want,” he said.

He suggested the following strategies:

Get buy-in from operations.

  • Speak the language of the business. That doesn’t mean spouting unfamiliar jargon – instead, use safety to support the goals of operations, La Duke suggested.
  • Provide information, not data, to company operations. Incident rates may mean little to nothing to operations employees. They want to know three things: what this information means, what does it tell them, and what they are supposed to do with it.
  • Avoid scare tactics, or what La Duke calls the “blood on the floor approach.” Company leadership may react by thinking the worst-case scenario very well won’t happen.

Run safety like a business.

  • Calculate realistic ROI for all your initiatives. “Unless you know how much the problem’s costing you, you can’t do anything about ROI,” he said. “Spend some time finding out by talking to them how much it costs – by just asking that question, you’re boosting your credibility.”
  • Distinguish discretionary spending from non-discretionary spending, and be prepared to explain why a safety initiative must be implemented now.
  • Look for and present other, lower cost options.
  • Apply for training grants or safety grants to offset the costs of regulatory training.
  • Look for ways to improve the efficiency and lower your costs.

Integrate safety into operations’ activities.

  • Understand the operations business model and ensure your business model supports it.
  • Train supervisors to conduct regular safety inspections and investigations on workers who were hurt in their area.
  • Expand safety in reviews/scorecarding to include trailing and leading indicators.
  • Assist operations’ leadership in developing a safety strategy. “Get operations to write a safety strategy,” he said. “It’s time to educate them.”

Demonstrate the value of safety.

  • Calculate the real cost of injuries.
  • Use hard numbers and avoid “soft” costs (such as the possible cost of low morale).
  • Tie safety to other operations’ measurables. Express something that’s important to them, like quality, and tie it to risk.

Demonstrate the urgency of safety.

  • Demonstrate why it needs to be done right now.
  • Calculate the risk of injuries.
  • Express the projected cost in terms of profits lost or additional production necessary to replace the money spent on injuries.
  • Avoid those “blood on the floor” tactics.
  • Don’t lay a guilt trip on operations.

Avoid fads or complex initiatives.

  • Keep It Simple, Safety Professionals (KISS). “Operations does not like to have a complex model laid over them,” La Duke said. “Just like us, if it’s something we don’t understand, we shut it down, we push it away.”
  • Recognize that lasting cultural change can come out of economic stress.
  • Make “simple, practical, fast” your mantra.
  • Choose your battles and understand that as much as you make safety your No. 1 concern, it might not make the COO’s top 100 issues.
  • Implement organizational development that will produce ROI within a year or less.
  • Avoid rigid, complex or otherwise confusing safety initiatives.

Finally, La Duke urged safety professionals to avoid the blame game. “Don’t blame the economy for lack of operations’ buy-in. Don’t blame it for your lack of a viable safety model. Don’t blame it for operations’ lack of interest in cost avoidance instead of cost reductions,” he said.

Selling Successfully

Difficult economic times actually can present an opportunity for the company to view safety in a new light, La Duke added.

“We have a huge opportunity to change not only the safety culture, [but] to change forever how our organization and the people who run the organizations see us as individuals,” he said.

“Selling safety in hard economic time is not all that different than selling safety in good economic times,” he pointed out. “I’ve got news for you: they’re going to rethink our function anyway. We can either be victim of that and let them decide, or we can do it.”

About the Author

Laura Walter

Laura Walter was formerly senior editor of EHS Today. She is a subject matter expert in EHS compliance and government issues and has covered a variety of topics relating to occupational safety and health. Her writing has earned awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), the Trade Association Business Publications International (TABPI) and APEX Awards for Publication Excellence. Her debut novel, Body of Stars (Dutton) was published in 2021.

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