Falls, spills, equipment malfunctions, operator errors—run a business long enough and some kind of workplace injury is almost certain to occur. Across industries, but particularly in those involving physical labor and the use of heavy machinery, injuries and even fatalities are unfortunate realities. Accidents happen.
But that doesn’t mean that safety should be anything less than an organization’s number one priority, or that employers shouldn’t do everything in their power to prevent accidents. During his years as Assistant Secretary of Labor at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, David Michaels witnessed a disturbing trend among the companies his agency oversaw: executives would say they were dedicated to workplace safety but fail to actually invest in their safety programs. Why? Because, in Michaels’ words, “many business leaders have an implicit but unfounded belief that, while it is necessary to reduce workplace injury risk, there is a trade-off between profits and the expenditures necessary to keep workplaces safe.”
In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Michaels explains that leaders not only have a responsibility to keep their workers safe, but that safety is fundamental to all organizational outcomes. He writes:
“Companies can be successful and safe at the same time. The reality is that virtually all workplace injuries are preventable, and safety management and operational excellence are intimately linked. Injuries and catastrophic events, in addition to being tragic, are evidence that production is not being managed correctly. Improved operational performance will result in fewer injuries.”
Any attempt to cut costs by undervaluing safety, in Michaels’ experience, has a long-term negative impact on an organization’s bottom line. We’re not just talking about OSHA fines—which the former Assistant Secretary calls “petty cash” for big companies—but issues such as waste, rework, and employee disengagement and absenteeism. CEOs who regard injuries and fatalities as foregone conclusions send the message to their workforces that there are some things more important than health and safety. Instead, Michaels recommends, an organization should set “an aspirational goal of zero injuries,” because “[t]he undesirable premise underlying the goal of a lower injury rate—versus aspiring to no injuries—is that it is OK for some workers to get hurt, as long as fewer get hurt than before.”
To be clear, we’re talking about more than some take-it-or-leave-it business advice here. Workplace safety is a legal requirement, and most employers wouldn’t consider a fine “petty cash.” Learn about 3 companies that have felt the power of OSHA.
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