Caliber Safety works with leaders to build businesses that protect people from getting hurt at work. Michael shares his thoughts on safety, human performance, work culture and business, with the goal of helping others be more mindful and effective in their approach to safety management.

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It makes me cringe when someone says, “Safety First.”  Even more cringy are “Safety First” slogans, banner, and stickers. The reason I cringe is simple: It isn’t true. No company EVER puts safety first, EVER! Before you fire off a nasty email telling me how crazy I am, let me explain! I believe that most companies want to provide a safe workplace. I also believe that leaders will do what they think will work to provide a safe workplace. I believe  leaders have good intentions and see “Safety First” slogans as an effective way to communicate the organization’s commitment to safety externally; and reinforce that commitment internally among its workforce.

The problem is, it isn’t true. Companies exist to provide goods or services, even non-profit companies. Companies do not exist to be “safe,” for if they did, it wouldn’t be long before you would see another sign; “Closed for Business”!

It’s not that I think companies aren’t safety-minded, it’s just a reality of our work. To get work done requires a balance between being safe AND being productive, while also maintaining quality, productivity, efficiency, etc. Todd Conklin said it best in his book Pre-Accident Investigations:

“People are as safe as they need to be, without being too safe, to get work done.” 

I agree with Todd in that no one can be 100% committed to safety, just as no one can be 100% committed to productivity. If one were committed to working as safely as possible, they wouldn’t get much work done. On the flip side, If one was committed to working as hard and as fast as I could, not only would safety suffer, but also quality, efficiency, costs, etc. So to get work done requires a balancing act, it’s not a “this or that” scenario.

Another reason “Safety First” slogans and stickers don’t work for me is because no one EVER means to have an accident. Accidents are just that, accidents. People rarely (okay, maybe 1 in a million) ever mean to injure themselves intentionally. People carry out their work in the safest way they know how, given their experience, knowledge, skills, and training. How an individual accomplishes a job is also subject to a multitude of external factors like organizational culture and local job conditions and factors. So telling someone to have a “Safety First” mindset doesn’t help them work “safe”, or tell them how to work “safe.”

Lastly, an organization does more harm than good if its “Safety First” slogans, banners, and stickers conflict with the reality of what the worker experiences daily in the workplace. People are smart. People understand the difference between what leaders say and do, and what leaders expect. If an organization tells people “Safety First”, and then fails to provide the right training, tools, and support, then the motivational power of any  “Safety First” sticker is lost.

Moving Beyond “Safety First” platitudes

An organization’s commitment to working safely should be self-evident. It shouldn’t need to be supported or reinforced with catchy banners and slogans. Getting work accomplished in the safest, most productive way possible should just be how “work gets done.”

As Sidney Dekker stated in his Field Guide to Understanding Human Error;

“a system isn’t automatically safe; people have to create safety through practice at all levels of the organization”.

Bottom line: Asking people to “be safe” is insufficient.

The lesson here is simple: Don’t tell workers to be safe, make it an expectation that is reinforced daily through what they experience in the workplace. Leaders in organizations need to evaluate organizational structures and systems that support how risk is assessed, managed, and controlled, facilitate communication across the organization, and instill a continuous improvement mindset.

Organizations focused on optimizing safety, and operational performance have engaged leaders across the entire organization who demonstrate their commitment to safety consistently through what they say, and more importantly, what they do! Strong and effective leadership is necessary for any organization wanting to build a culture around work where safety is truly valued!

Questions to consider:

  1. What results are senior leaders accountable for?
  2. How do senior leaders visibly demonstrate their commitment to safety?
  3. What would someone see leaders saying and doing that would indicate an unwavering commitment to safety and health?

The Lesson Here

Hold leaders accountable for what they say, and more importantly, what they do. Holding leaders (who in turn hold workers) more accountable produces greater transparency and openness, enhanced teamwork and trust, effective communication and dialogue, thorough execution and follow-through, sharper clarity and a tighter focus on results. Only then will working safe just be how “work get’s done”! 

Throw away your “Safety First” stickers and roll up your sleeves and do the hard work it takes to build a workplace where safety is truly valued!  

Michael Fackler, MBA, CSP, ARM is the owner of Caliber Safety, LLC, a Management Consulting firm specializing workplace safety and health. Caliber Safety works with business leaders to uncover and understand the systemic, procedural, and cultural drivers of operational and safety performance, and transform these insights into actionable strategies that optimize and align organizational systems and processes – ultimately building a workplace culture that values safety and provides positive results to the organization’s bottom line

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