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.

1 Comment On: Getting Workplace Safety Right

  • Dr Rabindranath Bhattacharya | June 12, 2016

    I remember an accident in an MNC foundry more than a decade back where one casual labour died and several were grievously injured when the grinding wheel of a pedestal grinder broke while rotating at 3000 rpm. The broken pieces of the wheel flew like bullets and punctured the lever of the dead person. I was asked to investigate and give a report. I studied the whole thing and found out the following reasons:

    1)Wheels had the front safety guards removed
    2)Wheels had not been replaced after the stipulated life specified by the manufacturer
    3)Workers did not use goggles and proper dresses required for such operations
    4)Fuse was of higher rating
    5)Workers (casual )were never trained for the operation (Fettling) which involved removing the flashes of the castings by pressing them against the running wheels
    6) There were no safety boards and workers being casual had never undergone any safety training

    Question is who is to be blamed- HR or Production ? Safety aspects are not owned by Production people and they tacitly supported the operations in order to maintain the production level. HR people had no authority to stop the production. Problem continued and everybody waited for the next accident to occur!

    I feel the culture as pointed out by the author is very important ( it should come from top only) and the safety norms if violated should be penalised. However I still feel the safety aspects do not get the priority it deserves in any organisation and a little bit of violation here and there is tolerated. The only way out is to put all these in the documentation used on shop floor and responsibility should lie with Operations people ony with HR people auditing it from time to time.

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