Why are some companies still struggling with safety while others have moved ahead dramatically? Why are some companies paying too much for workers’ compensation and having too many interruptions and losses from accidents, while others actually profit from safety? We can sum up a large part of the problem in two words.

Do you think those words are “Safety First”? No, that would put safety on a higher plane than the rest of the factors that you must manage to run your business. While it is important to consider safety early on in planning your work, there are two other words that you must understand if safety is to succeed in your company.

Two words paint the big picture, and they are possibly the most meaningful of all the concepts in safety management. These two words have been ringing loudly in the construction safety movement for decades: “Management Commitment.”

So, if it’s that easy and has been said for so long, why isn’t everybody doing it successfully? The problem is that no one has explained to most managers what Management Commitment means in terms of actions, goals and expectations, and measurement. Therefore, we have many company executives and owners that say, “I am committed to my employees’ safety,” “I don’t want anyone hurt on this job,” or “I have developed (or purchased) a safety program to show my commitment.” By saying they have commitment, or doing a few things that are required for safety, they feel they have arrived at a good or acceptable safety level.

The paradox is that virtually everyone is committed to safety, because the opposite of this would be “I don’t care if someone gets hurt” –and we know this is not true of any decent human. So, the dilemma is that we need to go beyond the word “commitment,” and beyond simply saying we are “committed,” and assure that our desire to have top safety performance is translated into actions in our company–actions that actually result in safety improvements and a long-lasting culture shift in our company. We must address safety the same way we would go after an improvement in quality, or introduce a new technique or a new product/installation technique to our supervisors and workers, or take on a new product line, or change our marketing style to attract new customers.

Successful company executives know that Management Commitment must be translated into actions that are definable, measurable, are part of a corporate business plan, and are on par with their other commitments. This last point is likely the most compelling. It seems that we are all committed to the routine-, day-to-day-, and production-oriented parts of our company. We are committed to profits, quality, customer service, productivity, marketing, sales, risk management/risk avoidance, and other aspects. We spend time, money, and management resources getting information and training on installation techniques, new product knowledge, cost and scheduling systems, and methods to improve productivity. We invest in training and cultivating our supervision that oversees our production to insure profitability and customer satisfaction. We take days at a time to go to seminars and trade shows and conferences to learn about new products and new marketing opportunities. We buy the best tools and devices to enhance production. We have trained buyers and estimators and accountants, insurance specialists, and lawyers that we pay good money to insure that we can manage costs, and legal and contractual risk. We know it takes training and skill development and a serious investment in time to get workers up to speed on techniques to insure quality and productivity and customer satisfaction. Even though they cost money and effort, we desire to do these things, because we know it yields results.

Now ask yourself these questions:

Do you invest that much time in your safety program? Executive time? Real, measurable, top level, Management Commitment?
Do you have a safety professional help you the same way you have other highly trained people assist your activities?
Do your crews get in-depth training on legal, practical, and technical matters related to safety?
Do your supervisors get leadership training, motivational training, and empowerment to lead their crews in safety, the same way they lead their crews in production?
Is there an investment in quality safety products and simple and effective systems for safety?
Do you spend more time and money trying to find the best screw guns, scaffolds, forklifts, and hoisting equipment, than you do trying to find the best fall protection?
Do you show your crews that these many aspects of construction are all equally important?
Do your crew members believe that discipline for not wearing fall protection in the boom lift is as severe, or more severe, than it would be for bending some roof sheets, failing to weld a joint, damaging some supplies with the forklift, damaging the company truck, loafing on the job, failing to do a quality job, or do something that causes your customer to be really dissatisfied?
If you can’t answer “yes” to each of the above questions, then your Management Commitment is not as strong in the safety area as it is in all other areas. Safety is likely an afterthought, or an expense that is necessary but not desirable, and the message is not crystal clear in your company that safety matters as much as every other aspect of a professionally run, profitable company.

If you didn’t answer “yes” to all the questions, don’t feel bad. Most companies can’t answer “yes” to most of the questions. We treat safety as a second-class management function, and allow the confusing language of OSHA, and unknowing safety products salesmen and unsophisticated safety persons to sway us and draw us off the real issues of Management Commitment, and investment in your personnel’s safety aptitude and skills.

An amazing thing to me is this: Safety management is the purest form of management, because the majority of safety is not very technical (the confusing part). Most safety performance is human behavior modification (the harder to do, but simpler part). If you can motivate people to adhere to quality, productivity, customer service, profitability, and other management disciplines, then you can manage safety, too. If you can manage safety, the rest of your management functions will be easy. Good safety programs actually enhance the rest of the factors you want to manage– including productivity and profitability.

Define your goals and measure your actions and efforts and investment for productive safety improvements against the time, resources and money spent on other aspects of your business– by you and your other leaders. Is your Management Commitment and the actions required to make it work what it needs to be? You can start by showing support and providing human and financial resources to safety, providing training and professional help to your leaders and workers alike, and investing your own time and effort in it as well, which shows the staff that it is important to you. Only when the business executives place safety on the same plane as every other important discipline in their company, will they arrive at a point where safety is integrated into their company culture.

Barry A. Cole

Note: This article by Barry A. Cole, President of Preferred Safety Products and Cole-Preferred Safety Consulting, was recently published by the Steel Erectors Association of America (SEAA).