Safety Is Our First Priority, Really?

Safety Is Our First Priority, Really?

Safety Is Our First Priority, Really?

“Safety is our first priority”. Have you heard that before? Seen its role in a company’s security program? Read a company’s safety policy on it. Seen it on placards around construction sites? It’s pretty common but what does it mean? Would these companies have anyone believe that they truly place safety above profit? That they will structure their tenders in a way that puts the safety of their workers above all other considerations and refuse to do work that threatens the health and safety of their workers? What does it mean to them? Or do they mean that safety performance is given the same amount of time and attention in senior management and board meetings as financial performance? Or that personal safety performance is the most important criterion for performance evaluation and promotional consideration?

History repeats itself

As with the HR catch-cry of the 1980s and ’90s — “Our people are our most valuable asset” — that hasn’t stopped companies from inventing new words and new rationales for laying off large numbers of their workers. So companies engage in considerable verbal gymnastics to justify their commitment to ridiculous concepts like “safety is our first priority” and “zero harm” when their workers are injured and killed. The idea that workplace safety is the most important priority of any business is not only ridiculous, but it also damages the status of such companies’ safety programs.

The downside of unrealistic security programs

Do managers or security people honestly believe that workers are taken in by such statements? Workers are at the business end; They are fully aware of the true priorities of the business. They know how safe or dangerous their workplaces are and whether safety is conveniently forgotten when production is needed. They can tell when a safety program is all smoke and mirrors and catchy slogans or whether it’s genuine and making real changes to make the workplace safer. If they perceive a security program as non-genuine, they will simply ignore it and not buy into it. The damage there is short-term, the long-term damage is the cynicism that these types of programs generate and not just towards security programs. After all, if a business lies in such a public fashion about its security priorities, what else would it be lying about?

A dose of reality

Let’s be honest, security will never be the first priority of any business, and it shouldn’t be. The first priority of any business, within reason, is to actually stay in business. There is no point in having the safest workplace in the world if the business goes bankrupt and nobody works there. Safety is one of the priorities of a company along with financial performance, environment, industrial relations, quality, production, etc. Management’s role is to balance these issues and it is a constant juggling act as they are expected to do less and more. The relative importance of these things diminishes. Ensure that there are minimum standards set by law in all areas of business activity and when these must be met, it will depend on the company’s ability to exceed them.

Challenging the status quo

Mike Roe, TV’s Dirty Jobs guy, actually got in some trouble for expressing a similar opinion. ISHN’s editor, Dave Johnson, gave Rowe a shout-out when Rowe commented on his website:

Of all the platitudes embraced in the workplace, none is more pervasive, misguided, overused, and dangerous than ‘Safety First!” In the jobs I’ve seen so far, I can say with certainty that safety, while always a major consideration, is never a priority. Never. Never, not even once. Making money is more important than safety – always.
In his response, Rowe provides some background to his statements, as well as some of his experiences with “security officials” that aren’t so glowing.

Although Johnson has some valid criticism of Rowe’s on-air performance, it is unfortunate that he displays an underlying belief that safety, or at least business, should be the first priority.

Let’s be honest

So, let’s be honest about our security program. Let’s accept that safety is not our first priority, let’s accept that workplaces will never be risk-free and that despite our best efforts, injuries will always happen. The goal should be to minimize the likelihood of injuries as much as possible without pretending that they can be eliminated. Let’s ground our security programs in reality, not fantasy.

Dave Hughes has worked as a full-time health and safety professional for over 30 years in both the public and private sectors. This enabled him to acquire a wealth of knowledge and experience in the practical management of health and safety in the modern workplace.

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