Why Safety is “Third” in the Workplace

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 safety third?

I’m not being delusional, just realistic. When safety or any other outcome is placed first, we tend to diminish the importance of other equally important outcomes. There becomes a thought process where safety must be prioritized or pitted against other competing business objectives. Traveling down this path can be disastrous.

If you’re reading this and thinking to yourself, “What does Mike know about safety?” The answer is simple: a lot. He has worked in numerous environments (mining, steel, fishing, farming, manufacturing, industry), and he’s been exposed to hazards that you and I couldn’t even dream of. As a result, Mike has 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 signs in our workplaces that say “Safety First” or “Safety is Number One” proudly, and for all to see. I’m sure some of you have that banner, and you have probably said to yourself “that’s a joke.” Is safety really first?

Is this mentality embraced by leadership and actively supported and shared throughout the organization? I could easily argue that a strong leader with 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 can see through it. Tell a 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, but 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.” The chance that safety becomes sustainable is 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 that negate the statement or belief that safety is a priority.

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, when safety is preached as being the top priority it becomes a buzzword. Now, it can be isolated and treated separately or differently than other business processes. Why can’t safety be built into the job process? Safety ought to be a core value.

On Dirty Jobs, Mike and his crew started saying “safety third,” as a reminder that ultimately safety is a personal responsibility. 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 must actively participate in, their own safety.

Written by Jeff Thorne | Manager of Training & Consulting


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