Thought Leadership

If the middle class continues to shrink, safety loses an important ally

May 15, 2014

IF the middle class continues to shrink, worker safety loses an important advocate. I think we are seeing the beginnings of the impact already.  When politicians openly question the value of “overly protective” safety laws and decry an overly litigious society as the bane of modern society it's because they believe saying such things will get them elected.

The safety function and expectation of safety was borne of the middle class, the working class is often content merely to have a job and survive, while the middle class tends to aspire to more. It’s no coincidence that there is a correlation between low paying jobs and higher risk to worker injuries. The working class tends to have fewer choices because of limited education, language difficulties, prison records, and lower expectations for life.

If we think hard about who values safety, I think we have to conclude it’s the middle class. 

Certainly the upper echelon of society cares about worker safety to a degree, but from a business standpoint the only compelling reason for safety is the cost of injuries. 

Only when safety is seen as a means of greater productivity instead of overhead will it ever be safe from the chopping block.

If the middle class fades from the landscape so too will the protections in the law.  As OSHA (and its counterparts around the world) is dismantled and neutered, fines are reduced and enforcement of what limited safety laws still exist becomes perfunctory and largely symbolic.  Tort reform and limits on litigation will inhibit poorer workers from bringing actions against companies that maim or kill workers, which will further lessen the costs associated with injuries.

If companies have less to fear from regulatory agencies and legal liability, why would they pay to have a full-time safety professional?

And those that do will have the pick of the litter as the pack of safety professionals compete for fewer and fewer jobs. Wages, always a product of supply and demand, will fall and the safety professional will join the ranks of the working class.

It’s quite a doom-and-gloom scenario, but it doesn’t have to be. 

That’s if safety professionals can dump the “I’m here to save lives” or “safety is the right thing to do” platitudes and become true and credible agents or change that understand, and can communicate, that injuries are process failures, in a word: waste. 

The elimination of waste lies at the heart of continuous improvement and process efficiency.  Years ago I worked the line building seats (before that work was outsourced to workers willing to do it for less money) for one of the Big Three.  On day one I was told that it costs $50,000 a minute to shut down the line; it was drilled in our heads that a moving line equaled money.  Everyone knew it.  As much as anything our job was to keep that line running.  Now when I go into a new client’s facility, (whether it be logistics, manufacturing, entertainment, or whatever) I ask, “how much does it cost to shut down production?” Few companies don’t have an answer.  Then I ask, “For how long does the average injury shut down production?” You can see the wheels turning as they do the math; it’s generally a big number.  In many cases, a twenty-minute loss of production can be more than five times the annual wage for a safety professional.

IF the safety profession survives it will be because it chose to abandon its human resources, rules and lectures roots in favor of a continuous improvement and waste reduction function. 

Only when safety is seen as a means of greater productivity instead of overhead will it ever be safe from the chopping block.



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