Safety Leadership

Safety First

It goes without saying that we want our workplace and employees to be safe. Nobody wishes to see anyone injured. Even the most cold hearted Neanderthal manager would prefer to avoid workplace injuries and incidents, if for no other reason than to avoid the resulting paperwork and medical expenses.

So why are there so many workplaces with poor or mediocre safe work practices? What can an enlightened manager do to achieve a genuinely safe workplace? How can we encourage enthusiastic compliance with safe work best practices?

I have had the privilege of visiting hundreds of industrial facilities. I can’t remember ever visiting any factory that didn’t have a “Safety First” sign, flag, banner, or similar announcement above or near the front door. Most facilities also post safety signs and banners throughout the facility for good measure.

Certainly, all of our employees and contractors have noticed our safety signs and banners. We can therefore confidently check the audit box confirming that we have communicated our Corporate Value concerning safety compliance. What more is there to do?

Communicating Values

Companies waste a lot of money attempting to achieve minimum levels of compliance with a huge range of Corporate Values, Initiatives, and Customer Expectations. If you expect a green “Safety First” sign to enlighten and motivate your workforce to voluntarily follow safe work best practices, you are hopelessly optimistic and have wasted the money you spent on the sign.


You say you value your credibility, and you aspire to have your workforce look up to you as a skillful and credible leader. Time for a reality check. You are the boss, the General Manager, Managing Director, Plant Manager, or similar leader of an industrial facility, and you have the big green sign posted on the front of your facility. Safety First. Explain to me … why do you believe deep down in your heart that Safety should be First? You posted the sign, so you certainly must have a very compelling reason why Safety is more important than anything else we do at our company. Why is Safety more important than Quality? More important than Customer Satisfaction? More important than Profit? More important than your next performance bonus, which is most likely calculated based on financial performance, not on Safety performance? Are you in business to produce safety, or are you in business to produce a product and generate financial returns to your shareholders?

Your credibility is on the line now. What do you believe? And can you explain and defend your beliefs to your skeptical employees?

Pursuing Enlightenment

Don’t despair. Enlightenment is close at hand. The question is whether you are willing to become a convert, a safety disciple, a true believer in the gospel of Safety First?

The truth is that yes, we are in business to serve our customers and our shareholders. If we fail to successfully provide our customers with products that meet their quality, performance, and reliability expectations, our company will not survive. If we fail to deliver a return on investment to our shareholders, we will not survive.

Does this therefore mean that we must take down our “Safety First” sign? Can we be honest about the realities of our business expectations and still claim that Safety is our first and highest priority?

The answer lies in the operating philosophy we choose to pursue to achieve our fundamental business objectives. If we pray at the Alter of Cost, and believe that our highest priority is minimizing costs, then we must take down our “Safety First” sign and replace it with a “Cut Costs First” sign. In this environment, Safety is an expense, and a very easy target for cost reduction. Frankly, quality, reliability, efficiency, and excellence, are all expensive, and all are easily compromised by a Low Cost philosophy.

The same analysis can be made for other operating philosophies. Each leads to unintended consequences that compromise safety, and frequently also compromise overall organizational performance.

Safety First (Translation: Operational Excellence)

What would happen to our facility, our organization, our operational performance, our financial performance, our customer satisfaction, our shareholder returns, if we truly adopt a “Safety First” philosophy?

How are we to even contemplate achieving “Safety First?” What does it mean to operate our facility in accordance with a Safety First philosophy? How can we possibly survive such a radical concept?

Have you ever considered what is an accident? Fundamentally, an accident is a mistake, an unintended consequence. Each industrial facility is faced with many types of mistakes, all unintended consequences, and virtually all quite undesirable. Quality incidents, inventory discrepancies, equipment failures, unreliable processes, data entry errors, account discrepancies, ordering errors, invoice errors, late deliveries, lost tools or assets, these and hundreds of other undesirable incidents arise from mistakes.

If we could eliminate all mistakes, how would that transform our company? Since safety incidents are ultimately the result of mistakes, eliminating mistakes would eliminate safety incidents. Eliminating mistakes would also improve quality, improve efficiency, reduce cost, enhance margins, raise customer satisfaction, drive increased sales, and delight shareholders with maximum returns on investment.

When Management finally realizes that the Safety First philosophy is fundamentally a quest for Operational Excellence, the paradox is finally eliminated. An organization can truly and wholeheartedly pursue a “Safety First” philosophy as the path to achieving Operational Excellence. All beneficial corporate performance flows directly from the “Safety First” philosophy.

Implementing Safety First

Safety First requires achieving Operational Excellence through the elimination of mistakes. How do we eliminate mistakes?

Training and Procedures: Each employee must be carefully and comprehensively trained to do his or her job correctly, competently, efficiency, and most importantly always safely. Training is a continuous exercise; learning and mentoring never ceases. Procedures must also be continuously created or updated to capture new best practices.

Tools: Each employee must aways be provided with the hard and soft tools required to successfully execute the task at hand. If the quality of the tools are compromised, the quality of the work will be compromised and mistakes will take their toll on safety, quality, reliability, and all other important performance metrics. Tools must be calibrated and maintained as appropriate, and must be available at the proper time and place to support the task.

Time: Each employee must always have time to stop and think before acting. There are no shortcuts; rushing creates mistakes, and mistakes destroy any possible time and cost savings that might have been sought through rushing. There is no substitute for good preparation for avoiding mistakes and achieving consistently excellent results.

Safety First cannot be implemented overnight. However, the philosophy can and must be clearly communicated and rigorously supported. Signs and posters are nice, but they are no substitute for direct heartfelt support from all managers and supervisors throughout the chain of command.

Many managers believe strongly that enforcing safety rules makes tasks take much longer. A four hour task becomes an eight hour task when safe work rules are rigorously enforced. However, my personal observation is that this is purely an example of reactive (as compared with proactive) safety enforcement rather than a genuine Safety First culture of Operational Excellence.

My experience is that a workforce that is well trained, has all of the right tools and procedures, and has time to carefully plan their work, routinely completes tasks much more efficiently and reliably than their peers in unenlightened facilities. The “Safety First” team carefully plans their work in advance, and documents their planning to guide future activities. They arrive at the site with every tool, part, and resource they need to complete the work. The work proceeds without most of the usual problems, because the task is being executed in the most professional manner possible. Unexpected problems almost never arise, because most unexpected problems are easily anticipated and addressed with prudent work contingency plans. The four hour task is completed in three hours, and the work quality far exceeds that of the unenlightened team.

Evangelical Manager

Operational Excellence can be achieved. Safety First is genuinely the most enlightened operational philosophy of the modern industrial facility. Employees and Contractors can be trained to focus on eliminating all mistakes, including most especially safety mistakes, through strict adherence to training and procedures, always using the proper tools (and using the tools properly), and always taking time to carefully prepare for each task prior to execution. This same philosophy delivers outstanding benefits in the office as well as on the factory floor.

However, Safety First won’t happen unless it is cultivated, supported, championed, and driven from the top all the way down to the bottom. Each Manager must believe in the philosophy, and must share their faith with their peers and subordinates.

Insist that the team focus on Safety First to achieve Operational Excellence. This is the true path to Industrial Heaven, and all other performance blessings will be generously bestowed upon the true believers.

Frank T.

One thought on “Safety Leadership”

  1. The writer is a little emotional at the beginning. The notes are good, also I have seen many similar write ups. With many of the companies I have worked with the motivation factor is left out. You have people driving a type of safety forum from the top down with “heartfelt speeches, posters, emails, etc. The main factor the I have seen left out is motivation. The lowest guy/gal on the totem pole normally ends up motivated by fear; of being reprimanded if a certain rule is not followed or being fired etc. This type of motivation is negative and creates a safety system that will never work. The motivation has to come from the bottom up and the management has to assist the people the real motivation of going home safely and the great feeling of accomplishment when a job has been well done incident & issue free.

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