In Part I of this Safety series, we covered how Workplace Safety started to develop as a result of the industrial revolution and the massive development that took place during the 1800s and 1900s. This article dives deeper into the way that safety programs became an integral part of doing business.
“Cheap Accidents” Stopped Being Cheap
One of the reasons that safety measures were slow to develop up until the twentieth century was that accidents were “cheap.” Much of the focus in those day was on higher productivity, more profit, faster construction, and all the factors that pushed revenue up and delays down.
Accidents, even those that took lives or destroyed property, were seen as a low-level risk. Many business owners who didn’t pay heed to workplace safety made the rules, without a strong presence of organized labor or government regulation. Employees who were maimed or sickened could be let go and replaced with other eager workers. Those who were killed on the job were just as easily replaced, without affecting business operation or triggering a review of how things were being done.
Just before World War I, a progressive reform movement started in the US, pushing for better safety practices on railroad lines. Soon after, the Bureau of Mines was established by Congress to deal with the increasing number of fatal explosions at the time.
Congress also acted in 1908, with new employers’ liability legislation that favored employees, not employers. It’s estimated that back then, the death of an employee might have cost a railroad company around $200. The new laws increased that cost to $2,000, a 10x increase that made businesses take notice. Over the next decade, 44 states would enact Worker’s Compensation laws to improve conditions for injured workers, and also encourage better safety practices at work. Businesses responded by looking for dangers and putting safeguards in place to reduce the risk of job site injury or death.
Safety Practices Have Made a Difference
Consider that in 1970 there were around 14,000 workplace fatalities in the US alone – around 38 deaths per day. In 2010, the yearly total was down to 4,500 fatalities (around 12 per day).
Over the last 100 years, most of the improvements in workplace safety have come from external factors: legislation, regulation, labor, and economic factors.
For the past few decades, however, the primary driver behind safety improvements is coming from employers themselves. Companies today operate in a very different environment than that of just 50 or 100 years ago.
Part of this, of course, is that corporate powers are now held much more accountable for their failings, both minor and major. There are many ways this happens:
- Media coverage of workplace accidents can be instantaneous, and especially damaging if an employer is found to be negligent.
- Companies and brands have embraced trust as a value that must be protected. That means building trust in the consumer space, and also when dealing with their partners and vendors. A company’s safety performance can make or break business relationships, quickly affecting their ability to survive.
- As illustrated by my own experience in a workplace accident – where cost considerations prevented necessary repairs, triggering a massive deadly explosion – safety is no longer considered a sunk cost. It is now understood as an investment that IMPROVES the bottom line and keeps a business profitable.
- Companies have evolved to seek process improvement and operational efficiency. A workplace accident is literally the worst thing that can happen to derail those efforts, making “ZERO incidents” a high-priority Key Performance Indicator (KPI).
- Teamwork is more valued than ever. While the workplace has always evolved around the idea of “teams,” nowadays employees and mangers are much better trained in terms of operating to the highest standards of safety. In a “Safety First” company, that allows team members to take responsibility for identifying risks, calling out hazards, and keeping each other safe.
What Type of Company Do You Work For?
Even with the huge improvements in Workplace Safety we have seen in a single lifetime, the unfortunate thing is that many companies still have a way to go before they can develop a true Safety First culture. If you are an employee of such a company, you can work to change that from the inside. Employees can demand better safety procedures, equipment and safer working conditions while on the job. If you are an owner or manager, you can help close the gap by improving procedures, augmenting safety training and knowledge, and helping workers become aware of their critical role in identifying issues.
Safety isn’t a “set it and forget it” type of thing. It’s like any other skill and practice in the workplace. Every employee should get frequent training on the aspects of work they need to be proficient on: from software training all the way to tool certification and beyond. Safety works the same way. More exposure to the underlying safety concepts, better preparation for hazardous environments, and a solid foundation in managing risk all lead to positive outcomes over time.
I get to speak to audiences all over the world about what it means to be a Safety First organization. When I’m hired for a Safety Keynote Speech, the audience isn’t just Corporate Shareholders, Executives or Sales & Marketing folks. No, at these companies, the understanding is that ALL levels of employees should be in attendance, top to bottom. Everyone who is a part of the organization should learn from my personal story, and from the ideas and tools I share, learned from over 30 years of helping companies identify the areas in which they need to improve to achieve zero incidents.
I was able to accomplish a lot in my life after being completely paralyzed from the chest down and confined to a wheelchair. I am living proof that success is ALWAYS possible. But I am passionate about Workplace Safety because I don’t want to see another individual injured or killed because someone failed to follow safety procedures on the job site. Any disaster can usually be traced back to a preventable root cause, and that is where must draw the line. Let’s focus on creating a culture where every employee is a Safety Champion, and we will protect worker health and safety, always.