Why safety is good business

Changing the workforce culture on emphasizing safety takes time, but the benefits far outweigh the challenges

By Simon Herriott, DuPont October 17, 2013

Business success is usually quantified in terms of revenue, profit, stock value, and productivity gains, while much less attention is paid to the influence of organizational culture on performance, growth, and business sustainability. Increasingly, businesses are re-examining the importance of organizational culture and its impact on performance. In fact, an organization’s culture pervades everything it does and everything it produces. 

The business of safety

At DuPont, we have a strong, pervasive safety culture that has taken root during the company’s long history. It influences everything we do, every decision we make, and has had a significant impact on our longevity and business success.

At the heart of our safety culture is an ethical imperative that calls for doing our utmost to keep our employees and partners safe. In a manufacturing setting that inherently plays host to above-average risk, nothing—neither profit margins nor competitive advantage—trumps the value of human safety and well-being.

This belief is increasingly accepted across industries and around the world; however, what is often overlooked is its influence on the organization beyond safety performance. Good safety fosters good business in many ways and can positively impact the bottom line.

Discussions related to the business benefits of safety tend to focus solely on cost avoidance. Every workplace safety incident incurs direct costs, such as medical treatment, and indirect costs, like damage to equipment and lost work time. When an organization decides to focus on safety performance, the result is often that it achieves broader business excellence in addition to safety excellence by creating principles and structures that are applied to multiple areas of the organization. 

The ultimate goal

In driving our own safety performance and in helping other companies transform their safety performance, we have learned that ambiguity around the end goal only serves to disengage management and employees alike. The goal should always be “zero”: zero incidents, injuries, or illnesses.

While this target may seem difficult—if not impossible—to achieve, we and other companies have witnessed the transformation that takes place as an organization’s safety performance improves. As the intervals between safety incidents increase, celebrations of zero become more frequent and lend credibility and momentum to the drive to succeed.

A goal of zero incidents builds momentum in a way that goals allowing some injuries do not, often because lesser goals fail to resonate with the workforce and get lost in the organization’s other objectives and metrics. 

Culture and safety performance

The relationship between performance and culture—the social norms, beliefs, and values that prevail—is critical to achieving zero safety incidents. Organizations with best-in-class safety performance have a more mature and higher performing safety culture. A mature safety culture is characterized by a proactive, preventative approach represented by intrinsic motivation (“I follow the rules because I choose to”) rather than an extrinsically motivated approach to safety (“I follow the rules because I have to”). In the former (desired) scenario, safety is a personal value, and the practice of a safe workplace is a source of organizational pride.  

In order to understand the dynamic between culture and performance, it is important to try to quantify and validate the relationship between the two. Over several years, DuPont has surveyed hundreds of clients and several hundred thousand employees in an effort to assess the state of culture in the client organization. These surveys have been conducted in multiple industries and regions and at all levels of the workforce, from management to the shop floor.

From this data, DuPont has created an index of Relative Culture Strength (RCS), which measures the safety culture of an organization. Using the performance data from the surveys, we have been able to demonstrate a strong correlation between safety culture and safety performance, supporting the premise that a strong safety culture is a prerequisite for sustained high performance. 

Leadership commitment to safety

The greatest challenge to creating a safety culture is instilling felt leadership, where company leaders, including the most senior executives, demonstrate they are incontrovertibly committed to safety. They do not waiver, no matter the business conditions, and they are clear that whenever a decision involves a choice—between safety and productivity, for example—safety comes first.

The primary facets of felt leadership are visible engagement and two-way dialogue. To accomplish this, company leaders must regularly interact with employees by performing safety observations, having conversations with employees about safety, leading safety meetings, and taking active roles in other safety-promoting activities.

At DuPont, the chief executive officer also is the chief safety officer and continually reaffirms—inside and outside of the company—that safety is a core value and the goal is always zero. The objective is to foster a level of intrinsic motivation and operational discipline where people choose to follow the rules and where leaders enforce the rules fairly and consistently.

Several elements can foster and support felt leadership, including:

  • Clear and meaningful policies and principles that confirm the priority of safety and provide a clear basis for decisions
  • Safety goals and objectives that are a prominent part of standard operating procedures, and
  • High-performance standards that apply to all safety matters and are obvious and known to all employees.

Ensuring an effective safety structure

A strong safety culture is one that engages all employees. Traditionally, many companies have employed safety professionals or established entire departments to which safety was effectively outsourced and usually contained. Forced to act as “safety cops” rather than as engaged participants, these safety professionals are often out of touch with the real challenges of how to work safely, and they are all but guaranteed to be unsuccessful.

In contrast, one of the earliest principles established by DuPont’s founders was that line managers should be responsible for the safety of the units they lead. Safety professionals still have a role, but it is more of a supporting role that places them in the role of expert, mentor, and guide to the line organization.

An effective safety organization also produces ample amounts of both quantitative and qualitative data that measure past performance, as well as leading indicators of future performance. To do this, both managers and safety professionals need to set up integrated managing structures to ensure that the data are interpreted and used to drive change; actions then must be agreed upon, assigned, and completed. The most effective organizations form committees or teams that are made up of individuals working across different departments and are dynamic and productive groups working effectively to improve performance. 

Action leads to effectiveness

Even with strong leadership and a supportive organizational structure in place, businesses must act to be effective. Organizations with a strong safety culture share certain action-oriented practices that include:

  • Development programs that transfer knowledge and skills to enable employees to recognize unsafe situations, correct them, and work safely
  • Comprehensive audit programs geared toward proactively identifying gaps in processes and ensuring that the safety culture remains strong and is embraced by the organization, and
  • Effective communication programs that keep safety top of mind throughout the organization. 

In addition to the above, the organizations that perform the best in terms of safety have created both reactive and proactive processes to analyze safety incidents if and when they do occur. For example, incident investigations help organizations learn from what has happened, including observations and findings that can help prevent future incidents. The key is to socialize the findings and show strong discipline in implementing recommendations. 

Five elements of a successful safety plan

Transforming a safety culture that needs to improve or sustaining a high-functioning safety culture requires a plan that keeps safety alive and fresh across the organization, and it often takes time. Otherwise, the accomplishments maybe temporary.

A successful safety plan will take into account:

  • Employee turnover and leadership changes
  • How to maintain operating discipline
  • Regularly conducting audits, monitoring data and reporting progress or slippage
  • The need to reinvigorate structures with carefully planned staff transitions, and
  • Utilizing new challenges such as off-the-job safety or community engagement to keep the momentum going toward the goal of zero.

Measuring the ROI of a safety culture

In addition to preventing loss of life and injuries to employees, the return on investment that results from developing a strong safety culture includes returns that are relatively quantifiable (direct costs saved) and those that are less easily quantified (indirect costs avoided from loss of production, quality losses, equipment damage, morale, etc.).

The size of direct costs depends in part on the regulatory framework in which the organization operates, but indirect costs apply everywhere. Direct costs alone are often enough to justify investments in safety improvements.

However, focusing exclusively on the benefits of avoiding incidents does a disservice to well-run safety organizations. Engaged leadership, the ability to diagnose issues and act preventatively to correct them, and the supportive and collaborative nature of an interdependent safety organization spill over into broader organizational effectiveness. Dividends include stronger operational discipline, greater productivity, an improved risk profile, and higher employee morale.

In the end, safety is about protecting people, their lives, and their livelihoods, but it is heartening to know that the better we get, the greater the rewards can be.

Simon Herriott heads DuPont Sustainable Solutions’ global consulting practice.