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Prioritizing Worker Safety

Prioritizing Worker Safety

Rethinking the Safety Paradigm

Several years ago, I found myself at an Operational Excellence Conference in Frankfurt, Germany. As with most talks, the speaker began by introducing the company he worked for and its core values. Dutifully, he listed them one by one – five or six in total. And there it was, the last value on the list: Safety.

“And at ACME Co., safety comes first,” he stated matter-of-factly.

I couldn’t resist. “If safety comes first, why is it listed last?”

The poor fellow was rendered speechless, and I admit, I felt a tinge of guilt. But not really. In fact, it might have been a truly honest moment at the conference, because the reality is that many companies talk a big game about safety, yet rarely is it the true priority.

Take, for example, a client of mine who mines and refines minerals. They preach about safety coming first, but the truth is, they want their machines running all the time, with production that is reliably consistent. God help the person who hits the red button – that person will not be celebrated, but rather held to account for their action, which ruined any chance of hitting the KPI.

Or how about another client I had in Russia, pre-Crimea, in the paper and pulp industry? There was a conveyor that ran about 20 miles per hour and carried material into a vat of nastiness. If someone fell into that vat, there was no rescue, only recovery. Yet, I would routinely see maintenance workers working on the conveyor by straddling it while it was running, just ten feet or so from the vat. Of course, they had safety gear, but they did not wear it because they wanted to look macho.

In the chaotic realm of workplace philosophies, where “Safety First” has long been the unassailable mantra, there emerges a rebel with a cause – or perhaps a rebel without one. Meet the advocate of “Safety Comes Third,” an individual whose sense of humor is as sharp as their disregard for conventional wisdom.

Embracing the Unconventional

Imagine a workplace where the water cooler discussions are not about accident prevention, but instead about the quirky mishaps that make everyone laugh. Picture a scenario where the safety manual gathers dust while employees engage in lighthearted banter about their near-miss encounters with office and workplace apparatus. It is a workplace where safety briefings are replaced by comedy sketches and hazard signs are adorned with witty puns, creating an environment where laughter is the best safety measure.

On one hand, proponents of “Safety Comes Third” argue that a workplace where safety is not the primary concern fosters a sense of camaraderie. When employees bond over shared experiences of slipping on banana peels or narrowly avoiding toppling file cabinets, it creates a unique sense of unity. After all, nothing brings people together like a good laugh at the expense of gravity’s pull or misplaced coffee mugs.

The Germans have a perfect word for it: Schadenfreude – the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others.

However, the conflicting nature of this philosophy cannot be overlooked. Critics raise their eyebrows, questioning the sanity of those who dare to suggest that safety should take a backseat to anything. They point to the potential hazards that might arise in such a carefree environment, where employees are more focused on crafting witty retorts than adhering to safety protocols. The clash between the serious advocates of “Safety First” and the whimsical supporters of “Safety Comes Third” creates a humorous tension, akin to a comedic standoff in a workplace sitcom or almost any episode of “The Office.”

In this humorous tug-of-war, employees find themselves torn between the gravity of safety concerns and the levity of a workplace that encourages enjoying one’s work, with laughter being a part of that. Meetings are peppered with contradictory statements, where supervisors sternly remind their teams about the importance of safety, only to be met with mischievous smirks from the “Safety Comes Third” advocates who believe that a workplace with less emphasis on safety might just be the key to unlocking creativity and innovation.

The Army’s Unconventional Perspective

I was recently introduced to the concept of “Safety Comes Third” by someone who was in the United States Army. When she mentioned it and that it was truly a thing in the Army, I did a physical and mental double-take.

She went on to explain that in the United States Army, where discipline, teamwork, and precision are the bedrock of operational success, the phrase “Safety Comes Third” takes on a unique and profound meaning. Amidst the rigorous training, strategic planning, and high-stakes missions, the Army acknowledges that safety, while undeniably crucial, is not the sole determining factor for mission accomplishment. The Army values a holistic approach, placing emphasis first on mission readiness and execution, followed by unit cohesion and effectiveness. When soldiers are thoroughly prepared, mentally sharp, and cohesive as a team, they naturally become more attuned to safety protocols, enhancing their ability to mitigate risks effectively.

This unconventional perspective challenges the traditional hierarchy of workplace values, highlighting the Army’s commitment to excellence in all aspects of military service. By placing safety third, the Army cultivates a culture of responsibility and vigilance, where soldiers are not just passive recipients of safety guidelines, but actively engaged participants in ensuring their well-being and the welfare of their comrades.

In this introductory exploration of the concept within the context of the US Army, we delve into the nuanced approach that underscores the importance of prioritizing mission success and unit effectiveness, ultimately fostering a safer and more resilient force in the face of diverse challenges.

At least, that’s the theory.

Productivity, Creativity, and Safety

In the fast-paced world in which we live, safety is often touted as the paramount concern in any workplace. From construction sites to corporate offices, the mantra of “safety first” is ingrained in our minds. It makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, who would not want to work in an environment where their well-being is the top priority?

But what if I told you that the reality is that safety comes third? That’s right, third. In the grand scheme of things, safety might not be the ultimate guiding principle for every organization. This contrarian viewpoint challenges the conventional wisdom and urges us to reconsider our approach to workplace values, and perhaps aligns with the reality.

Traditionally, safety has been upheld as the cornerstone of a productive and ethical workplace. It is true that ensuring the safety of employees is crucial, but what if we consider the broader picture? What if we reevaluate the hierarchy of workplace values and place other factors at the forefront?

What if the paradigm shifts to, or already is in reality: Productivity, Creativity, and Safety?

In this unconventional approach, productivity takes the lead. A productive workplace fosters innovation, growth, and financial stability. When employees are motivated, engaged, and driven to excel, they contribute significantly to the organization’s success. Prioritizing productivity encourages employees to embrace challenges and find creative solutions to problems.

Following closely behind productivity is creativity. Creativity fuels innovation and drives businesses forward. Encouraging a creative environment allows employees to think outside the box, explore new ideas, and develop groundbreaking solutions. Creativity is the lifeblood of progress, making it a fundamental value in any workplace.

Now, where does safety fit into this paradigm? By placing safety third, we are not downplaying its importance. Instead, we are acknowledging that a productive and creative workforce is inherently attuned to the significance of safety. Employees who are motivated and engaged naturally look out for one another, making safety a collective responsibility rather than a top-down mandate.

The Virtues of the Third Option

When safety is demoted from its top position, a culture of responsibility emerges. In a workplace where productivity and creativity take precedence, employees are encouraged to take ownership of their actions and decisions. This sense of responsibility empowers individuals to prioritize safety organically, without the need for stringent rules and regulations.

In such a culture, employees are not merely following safety protocols because they are obligated to do so; they are actively aware of their surroundings and potential hazards. They understand the impact of their actions on themselves and their colleagues. This heightened awareness promotes a safer environment without the need for constant surveillance or micromanagement.

Innovation often involves taking risks. It requires stepping outside the comfort zone and exploring uncharted territories. While safety is essential, an excessive focus on it can stifle creativity and hinder progress. By acknowledging that safety comes third, organizations strike a delicate balance between fostering innovation and ensuring the well-being of their employees.

Encouraging employees to embrace calculated risks can lead to groundbreaking discoveries and advancements. When employees feel supported in their endeavors, they are more likely to push boundaries and explore innovative solutions to complex problems. This balance between risk and safety is crucial for the long-term success of any organization.

Placing safety third is not about neglecting the well-being of employees. It is about empowering them to be proactive and vigilant. When employees are trusted to prioritize their safety within a framework of productivity and creativity, they become active participants in creating a secure work environment.

Empowered employees are more likely to speak up when they notice potential hazards or unsafe practices. They actively contribute to the development of safety protocols and collaborate with management to enhance workplace safety measures. This sense of ownership fosters a strong sense of community and camaraderie among employees, creating a supportive workplace culture.

A Brave New World of Work

In challenging the traditional notion that safety comes first, we open the door to a new perspective on workplace values. By prioritizing productivity, creativity, and responsibility, organizations can create a work environment where employees thrive, innovation flourishes, and safety is a natural outcome.

Embracing this contrarian approach requires a shift in mindset and a willingness to trust employees to prioritize their well-being. It is about fostering a culture of mutual respect, trust, and collaboration. When employees are empowered and motivated, they become the driving force behind a successful, safe, and sustainable workplace.

So the next time you hear someone say “Safety first,” consider the possibility that safety, while undeniably important, can be a natural outcome of a productive, creative, and responsible workplace. In this brave new world of work, safety comes third, and in doing so, we may pave the way for a brighter, more innovative, and yes, safe future.

After all, as the saying goes, “prevention is better than the cure.” But sometimes, a little laughter and a touch of recklessness can be the best medicine.

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