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“Safety is #1 at Our Company”: Why Employees Don’t Believe It

Why is it when management says “Safety is our number 1 priority” employees hear “Production is number 1 priority”?  The disconnect between management’s words that safety is the top prior in the company and the employees belief that productivity is the top priority is something that I hear and encounter as a consultant at the majority of organizations I’ve worked with.  A typical conversation with the plant manager, HR director and even the CEO/owner is that “we value our workers health and safety.  We want them to be safe and we’ve told them we value their safety over everything else in the company.”  Then I meet with the front line employees and 9 times out of 10 the message they tell me is that “management says they care about our safety but we know that’s not true.  Productivity comes first, always has and always will.  We have to get the products out the door—period.”  I had one plant manager tell me that his “number one pet peeve” was hearing that his employees say that production is number one when he has told them over and over that safety comes first.  I’ve had employees tell me that management just gives “lip service to safety”.  The question I’d like you to think about is “Why is this disconnect so common? 


I’ve met many CEOs, owners, directors and managers who truly do care about their employees and want them to be safe.  The last thing they want is for employees to injury themselves.  However, even sincere management faces skeptical employees.  Why is that?  I believe it is simply that the reasons given by management for caring about employee safety don’t ring true to employees.  They don’t believe it—it doesn’t sound realistic.  They know that profitability of the company comes first.  In their minds that means production comes first regardless of the words spoken of safety by management. 


Typical messages from management

Let’s take a closer look at typical messages from management.  Supervisors and front line employees are all very skilled at distinguishing marching orders that we are supposed to follow from the marching orders we’re supposed to basically ignore but pay lip service to.  Even though management may say do this, this and this, the employees know some of those messages they hear they should do are optional or “pretend”.  Management may really mean it about safety but the employees assume they don’t and concluded they don’t, which in turn perpetuates a “unsafe” culture that they (employees) thought was the culture management wanted from them.


Management needs to realize that not all messages are taken seriously by employees.  People listen to the messages and decide which ones they’re supposed to do and not to do, i.e. shrug off most of the time.  For example, the most common safety message by companies is “Safety is #1” or “Safety is more important to us than anything else”.  Employees instinctively feel that message is pure bunk.  Employees know the #1 priority for management is clearly profitability.  Employees have no trouble judging the claim that “safety is #1” in and of itself is nonsense.


Does your company genuinely care about safety for instrumental reasons but it’s pretending to care about safety for intrinsic reasons?  Then just come out and say it.  Employees will appreciate the honestly and most likely will actually believe you!  Claiming that safety is a goal when it is actually a means to a goal has no credibility and employees will blow off the safety rules.  They will when asked automatically say that “management says safety is #1 but we know what they truly mean is that production is #1”.  This results in a paradox outcome that bad for both the employee and the company—that is from the company have a good policy but having a dishonest or unstated rationale for the policy.


If you want employees to believe you when you tell them that you care deeply about their safety, explain why realistically.  Your employees are intelligent.  They know about the economy, how competitive your industry is and how staying business requires profits.  Admit that reality when you deliver your safety messages.  I’d recommend a message similar to the following:  “Your health and safety is truly important us.  Our safety record fill in the blank (is terrible, average, better than average but still not good enough).  We know people are getting hurt and hurting people is not why we are in business.   We know that injuries are very costly to you—personally and to your family—but are also very damaging to our company’s profitability.  Obviously we care about production—your performance and productivity makes or breaks our company.  We realize, and you know firsthand, that your performance and productivity is based on—your health and safety.  Our safety record is one of our company’s disadvantages in the marketplace.  We want our safety record and your health to be a part of what drives our company’s bottom line.  We know that we have a long way to get there.  In order to get there we’re counting on you to help us get there.  We need you to help us help you to keep you healthy and safe.  We want the work you do to be designed so you are able to do your job comfortably and effectively day in, day out.  We need this to happen for your health and for our company to stay competitive.  We’d love nothing more than to get to the point where our safety record and profitability are far beyond our competitors.  It is with these reasons why we are fill in the blank—starting, re-starting, initiating a new safety strategy that aligns with process improvement and lean initiatives our company performs and values on a day to day basis.”


Compare the above message with the typical “We care about you.  We want you to go home with 10 fingers and 10 toes each day to your family. Your safety matters more than anything else in this company”.  Which would you believe?  Which is based in the reality your employees live in everyday? 


If your company is serious about safety and reaping the benefits that saves money by:

  • Reducing incidents in a way that saves us training costs
  • Saves us insurance costs
  • Saves us medical costs
  • Saves us recruiting costs
  • Saves us morale costs

Then take the time to find out why your employees aren’t taking it seriously.  Diagnose where and what message/messenger it is coming from and then implement a treatment to fix it.  The next step is the hard part, actually following through with designing and making the work safe, efficient and intuitive for workers to do their jobs effectively and safely each day.