Most people readily agree that safety is good business, but they span an enormous spectrum in what they mean by that and the degree to which they truly understand the connection between safety and their business.
Understanding that connection is important. Without the right understanding, anyone who recognizes their fiduciary duty to their organization will tend to prioritize production over safety. We see this all the time: a plant manager defers maintenance in order to maximize year-end profits, corporate managers celebrate the plant’s success, and the manager receives a promotion. Without fully realizing it, the plant and corporate managers’ actions not only put employees at greater risk than they intend, but also set in motion a sequence of events that undermine business performance for years to come. If asked, every last one of them would say, “safety is important and we can get to zero,” but their decisions and actions reveal that their understanding is limited.
Really understanding the connection between safety and business is not just a priority for the financially-minded; indeed, it is no less critical to the person who is deeply committed to safety for moral or spiritual reasons. If you have personally experienced, witnessed, or been close to someone involved in a serious or fatal incident at work, the idea of a business case for safety can sound distasteful. You are deeply invested in improving safety for its own sake, and are willing to go to great lengths to reduce risk as a result. Yet even still, if you don’t fully understand the connections between safety and business performance, your efforts to improve safety will be limited.
The connection between safety and business performance comes down to creating the conditions for organizational success—and it just so happens that safety is the perfect platform to do that. Years ago, my colleagues and I discovered that engaging workers in safety was enhancing organizational safety culture in ways that were great for every aspect of the business. Even in plants plagued by distrust between co-workers or friction between workers and managers, safety has the ability to bring people together to achieve a common goal. Dealing with common safety issues provides opportunities to interact and build skills that might not otherwise occur within an organization. Again and again, safety provides ideal opportunities to cultivate and practice key leadership skills. All of these things contribute to a culture characterized by mutual trust and respect, teamwork and commitment, and a focus on safety which in turn corresponds to excellence in safety and performance generally.
Regardless of whether you are a person who feels a fiduciary responsibility to make sound financial and business decisions, a person who feels a moral obligation to protect lives at any cost, or a person who wants it all, you will benefit from a strategy of improving safety that understands the full scope of how safety impacts business, and hence creates the conditions for success.
It’s a nuanced and rich connection to be sure, but in brief, the relationships between safety, engagement, leadership, culture, and performance make safety an ideal catalyst for improving every area of a business. When safety improves significantly as the result of getting employees engaged, that not only makes the safety numbers better, but it also strengthens culture. And a strong culture makes it possible to achieve performance excellence in all areas of business.