Safety First and Last: Safety third? - Why safety can't just be one priority among many

Safety third - Safety shouldn’t be thought of as one priority among many.
Jeff Thorne
July 10, 2018
By Jeff Thorne
Every so often we come across an article, blog or video that mirrors our own beliefs when it comes to how we view safety. Recently I came across an article and a video of Mike Rowe from the show Dirty Jobs (love this show) stating poetically what I have been discussing with people for years and what many of you may also believe: safety is not first. Yes, that is correct folks, safety is not first, it may not even be second. Is it safety third?

I’m not being delusional, despite what I’ve been told from time to time, just realistic. When safety or any other outcome is placed first, we tend to diminish the importance of other equally important outcomes or there becomes a thought process where safety is pitted against other competing business objectives. Travelling down this path can be disastrous.

You might be thinking to yourself “what does Rowe know about safety?” The answer is simple: a lot. He has worked in numerous environments (mining, steel, fishing, farming, manufacturing, industry) and been exposed to hazards that you and I couldn’t even dream up. As a result, he’s been subjected to hundreds of orientations and training sessions. With his boots-to-the-ground mentality, he has seen and heard how safety is constantly being preached as the number-one priority but, in reality, it’s not and I agree.

We post it in our workplaces for everyone to see, proudly flying high on a banner or sign: “safety first” or “safety is number one.” I’m sure some of you have that banner and you have probably said to yourself “That’s a joke.” Is it really first?

Is this mentality embraced by leadership and actively supported and shared throughout the organization? I could easily argue that strong leadership that possess the required knowledge, skill, ability and attitudes to effectively exercise their role is more important than safety as safety cannot be achieved without strong leadership. Safety becomes a by-product of well-managed systems. It is not a target.

The more this safety-first mentality is preached, the more complacent your workforce may become because it’s just not believable and they see through it. Tell the worker that safety is first after they have been asked to perform an unsafe task by their supervisor, or after the worker recognizes and reports an unsafe task and nothing is done about it. What message does that send? “Safety sometimes” or “safety only when it’s convenient?” If safety is preached as the top priority and that priority changes, then safety is only “situational” – considered as an afterthought that bears no resemblance to what safety truly is. Chances that safety remains sustainable become diminished.

The intent behind stating that safety is a priority is a good one and it makes sense to many. However, priorities of a business can change or exceptions are made in certain circumstances where now that statement or belief that safety is a priority no longer exists.

Let’s be honest, getting the job done efficiently and being profitable ranks first with most employers. That’s not to say that employers don’t view safety as being important as nobody wants to see fatality, injury or illness. However, and this is worth repeating, when safety is preached as being the top priority it becomes a buzzword where it can then be isolated and treated separately or differently than other business processes. Why can’t the job or task be completed where safety is built into the process? Where safety is a core value. Wouldn’t that be much easier?

On Dirty Jobs, this is how Mike and his crew started feeling so they started saying “safety third” as a reminder that ultimately safety is on you, a personal responsibility. That it’s a poor thought to have that someone else (employer, manager, supervisor) cares more about your safety than you. I believe that this thought gets lost in many workplaces. I fully realize the hierarchal structure of general duty legislation and how employers and supervisors bear a great deal of responsibility but we cannot forget the importance of ensuring that workers are aware that they are responsible for and actively participate in their own safety.

When safety is on display, be careful of the words you choose as sometimes the best intentions can have negative consequences.

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