Most managers say employee safety is a top priority. So why do so many companies mismanage it — to the detriment of workers and the company — by fostering cultures that make safety the enemy of productivity?

Worker safety is a persistent and expensive problem, even in countries with well-developed regulation and enforcement. For example, 2.8 million nonfatal occupational injuries and more than 4,600 workplace fatalities occurred in the United States in 2014. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that, in addition to the incalculable human cost, occupational illness and injuries cost businesses in the United States about $170 billion each year.

The management of employee safety is hardly a new concept. Yet, in manufacturing, many companies are missing out on the cost efficiencies and synergistic boost to productivity that would come from investing in safety systems and capabilities. The reason? They don’t take safety seriously enough. In fact, a sense that rules need to be broken to get work done was evident in the majority of the workplaces we researched.

Safety Versus Productivity: A False Trade-Off

For the past decade, the three of us have, with additional coauthors, been involved in conducting multiple studies with the support of companies, unions, and regulators in both the United States and Canada. These studies have involved a variety of data collection methods including detailed case studies, interviews, surveys of workers and managers, and the use of secondary outcome data. The findings have been published in multiple papers that have appeared in leading business and safety publications. (See “Related Research.”)

We studied both manufacturing and distribution plants, some with exemplary safety and productivity records and others that lacked either good safety or productivity.