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Selling Safety, Revisited

Phil La Duke of Rockford Greene explains why and how Safety must distinguish discretionary spending from non-discretionary spending and be prepared to explain why a safety initiative must be implemented immediately instead of waiting for a better business climate.

Posted: August 25, 2011


Safety must distinguish discretionary spending from non-discretionary spending and be prepared to explain why a safety initiative must be implemented immediately instead of waiting for a better business climate.

Almost three years ago I introduced the concept of Selling Safety in Tough Times at the National Safety Council conference in Orlando, FL. This speech seemed to resonate with people. In fact, the broad media coverage that followed it clearly struck a nerve. But despite all of that initial excitement – along with the high-profile workplace fatalities in mining, oil and gas, transportation and manufacturing that have happened since – not much actual change has occurred in the collective consciousness with regard to how organizations view and manage the safety of their workers.

The heart of the problem is the prevalent belief by Safety personnel that Operations leadership is, at best, indifferent to safety and, at worst, antagonistic to it, neither knowing nor caring what world-class safety looks like. Beyond that, Safety contends with plenty of challenges within its own organizations. For example, a growing rift exists between those in environmental hygiene who view themselves as traditional scientists versus those who see workplace safety with more of a behavioral scientist/psychological bent and embrace Behavior-Based Safety (BBS) as their philosophic guide.

The bottom line solution to all of this remains the same – Safety must meet the needs of the company leadership and show them how applied safety practices fit them within the organization’s goals and success. With this in mind, let’s revisit how to sell safety in your organization.

Nobody wants to see workers injured and nobody wants to get hurt, so safety professionals must get more involved with the day-to-day business team and ultimately become indispensable to Operations. This process begins by recognizing that production is how manufacturers make money. The bottom line for Safety, then, is to communicate to the Production side how injuries cost money, waste valuable resources and tie up cash in a tight money market.

If Safety can help Operations to safely increase production, then everyone wins. For this to happen, Safety must take a leadership role in process improvement, instead of being relegated to simply shooting down other peoples’ ideas as unsafe.

Operations leaders do not have time or inclination to listen to a complex model or a lot of safety jargon. When they say “tell us what to do,” they are not copping out or abdicating their responsibility for worker safety. Rather, they are asking for help in operationally defining what real safety looks like. Safety isn’t the absence of injuries; it is the reduction of risk.

Help Operations to understand probability. This includes teaching them that, while there is no such thing as a completely safe work environment, one can greatly reduce the risk of injuries and the severity of those injuries that do occur. It is one thing to talk about leading and lagging indicators, but the real need on the floor is to interpret raw safety data and provide Operations with actual information that they can turn into action. Data without analysis is just numbers.

While speaking the language of production is critical to selling safety, it is not enough. Everyone in the organization needs to completely understand how the organization makes money. The role of communication is to continually perpetuate and transcend this function in a concise, clear, and simple manner.

For example, I recently met with an Operations Vice President who spent many years as a consultant and talked about pitching solutions to clients. “Years ago I learned something in sales training,” he recalled. “Keep your answers short and simple. The reason for this is that the longer the answer, the more the person you are trying to convince starts to doubt whether or not he has enough information to make a good decision.” This dynamic lies at the crux of disconnect between Safety and Operations.

Safety personnel get frustrated because their ideas are rejected out of hand. Operations, in turn, is discouraged by Safety technicians that develop “unworkable solutions.”  The actual problem is often not the solution per se, but how poorly the solution is being communicated. Both parties are to blame for this communication breakdown. Operations must take more of a role in making the decision, and Safety must do a better job of articulating the costs, risks, and benefits of the changes it is advocating.

One thing that hasn’t changed in the three years that I have been preaching this doctrine is that safety professionals must run the Safety department like a business. What has changed dramatically, however, is how businesses in general are run. In boom times calculating a realistic return on investment (ROI) is important. In tough times it can mean the difference between life and death of an organization. Unless you know how much a problem is truly costing you, you cannot do anything realistically about ROI. Safety must spend some time finding out by talking to Operations about how much the problem costs – just asking that question boosts the credibility.

The business climate is improving, but Safety should not only run the safety department like a business, it must run it like a turnaround business. In other words, Safety must distinguish discretionary spending from non-discretionary spending and be prepared to explain why a safety initiative must be implemented immediately instead of waiting for a better business climate.

Another element of running Safety like a business is to look for and present other, lower cost options. Government money to help struggling manufacturers is more and more scarce, but there still are some training or safety grants to offset the costs of regulatory training.

The economy is not to blame it for your company’s lack of a viable safety model, nor is it responsible for Operations’ lack of interest in cost avoidance instead of cost reductions. A tough economy can actually present an opportunity for a manufacturer to view safety in a new light. We have a huge opportunity to change not only the safety culture of our organizations, but to change forever how our Operations and Safety work together to make the workplace safer.

  • Steve Madsen wrote:


    Your perspective on selling safety is one of the more relevant articles I’ve read in the more than 20 years I’ve been involved with Safety. The bottom line, Safety makes great business sense.

    The ability of safety professionals to involve operations in the planning and implementing any safety initiative will pay dividends as well. When new HR initiatives are created around leadership and management training, safety professionals should be part of those discussions. Once safety becomes a thread running through all business processes, the ‘selling’ becomes easier because it becomes part of every conversation. Safety should never become one of those ‘what about…” questions.

    Very nice job with this article, Phil. Conceptually, easy to understand; well-written, and most importantly, it makes perfect sense.

  • Paul Marciano wrote:

    Absolutely excellent work. I will be passing it along to my clients. Thank you! Paul

  • Niels Jensen wrote:

    I agree with you, that to little progress has been made over the last 3-4 years on safete of people at work are managed.

    For example why is it, that the off-shore industry in the North Sea have less than 1/10 of the TRIR of the construction industry in Denmark?

    I don’t believe this has anything to do with the attitude of different groups within the organisation. Everyone want’s to get home without getting hurt. However, there is a need for many groups to learn to open their eyes to see the hazards, such as Imperial Oil in Canada called upon all people at the Kearl Oil Sands project to do last year. Some people immediately see hazards in a kitchen or a garage and identifies who could get hurt and how. Others don’t recognize the same things as hazards.

  • Jim Loud wrote:

    Nice job Phil,

    For too long safety has been treated as something separate from the work rather than a preferred way to accomplish the work. All these safety slogans such as “safety first” haven’t helped nor has the obsession with safety incentives and behavior interventions. No business treats production, quality, or cost control in such a manner. Safety needs to be integrated into the work system and become an organizational objective for how the work is accomplished. Thanks for promoting this important and grownup view of safety. There is still a long way to go.

    Jim Loud CSP

  • Linda Demeshko wrote:

    Phil: As always, an excellent article on safety. I can’t think of a more important topic today. I recently read that several governors, including our own here in Michigan, are relaxing work rules re: ergonomic issues in the workplace. Perhaps they need to read some of your articles and realize the importance of having a safe workplace and how it will protect workers while increasing the bottom line.

  • Omar Fundora wrote:

    No one should need to “sell” safety to an owner/officer of a company. If you are the safety professional hired to champion safety in a company, then the owner/officer is already on board with the need for a safe workplace. I think the reason why a disconnect sometimes exists between the safety champion and the owner/officer is because the safety champion does not reallu understand the company culture, or the priorities of players in Management do not rank safety with the same degree of importance (for one reason or another) as the owner/officer’s vision. This assumes,of course, that the owner’s interest in safety extends beyond the law requiring it or it being a condition of the insurance company.
    There are companies that are not good citizens, and if you request the accident history from your local Industrial Commission, you will find that they have a history of repeating the same type, frequency and severity of accidents year after year and never improve . . . in the mean time, you see safety professionals come and go every two years or so from these companies.
    Safety Professionals, as a rule, are not officers of a manufacturing company and the success of most safety professionals in a manufacturing enterprise depends upon how much the position of power uses its leadership to support the safety effort prescribed by the safety professional.

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