Thought Leadership

The Toyota recall: Why safety pros in consumer companies have leverage

February 10, 2010

t’s a matter of trust. Safety-related problems are trust-busters for businesses like Toyota. These companies rely on consumer trust in their wares as an essential to building brand loyalty, brand reputation, and of course sales, market share and profits.

Safety issues become an even more significant trust-buster when they go so far as to endanger the lives of unsuspecting customers, as in Toyota’s case when brakes might fail.

I’ve long thought that safety and health pros working for consumer products companies enjoyed unique leverage. Not that they have the perfect safety job; there is no such thing. But think about it: a food company, a healthcare products company, an automaker, all depend on relationships with the public to make a profit. The same goes for airlines, as another example. Any internal screw-up in design, manufacturing, maintenance, operations or quality control that ends up threatening the health, well-being and even the lives of consumers of those products and services is a major blow to the unspoken but taken for granted trust in the safety of what that company delivers.

This is why pharmaceutical companies can’t ignore safety. Remember the Tylenol crisis? Of course you can find flaws in their safety and health programs; you can find flaws in any safety and health program if you look hard enough. But the fact is many of the long-time standard-bearers of strong safety programs are companies that have ties that bind to consumers: Ford, GM, Proctor & Gamble, Delta Airlines, Johnson & Johnson, DuPont, Kraft Foods, Disney, FedEx, UPS, AT&T, GE, Kimberly-Clark.

One of the reasons for the explosive growth in OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program in the past ten years is the use of the VPP flag as a sort of seal of good housekeeping endorsement, a visible and promoted display of safety as a company value to help build trust with customers. Look at some of the leading participants in VPP — Delta, GE, Frito-Lay, Sherwin-Williams, L.L. Bean, Monsanto, Honeywell, Georgia-Pacific, L’Oreal, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, Milliken, ExxonMobil. With few exceptions, these companies score high in terms of consumer recognition.

Companies that operate off of the public’s radar screen are less likely to be found in the ranks of VPP. Of 2,329 work sites in the VPP at the end of 2009, only 32 are in the primary metals industry; 54 in the fabricated metals industry; 45 in instrument manufacturing. I’m not saying good safety and health programs are not found in these types of industries — good safety programs can be found anywhere you have a CEO who wants good safety, where good labor-management relations exist, and good safety and health expertise is on hand.

But recall McWane, the pipe, fittings and valve company whose many safety failures were documented several years ago by The New York Times, or AK Steel, whose series of fatalities go back even further. These are examples of the “upstream” supply channel nuts-and-bolts manufacturers who produce industrial raw materials and commodity hardgoods out of the public eye. Both McWane and AK Steel took steps similar to what Toyota has announced after their safety problems became public knowledge: top-to-bottom organization reviews, blue-ribbon safety panels, cooperation with regulators, more open safety communications.

Last Sunday more than 100 million people watched the Super Bowl and an hour’s worth of commercials. By the way, if spineless wimpy males, squawking chickens and snarky beer guzzlers are best that the most creative advertising minds in the country can come up with, advertising is mired in a deep recession of ideas. But I’m off point. The commercials were all about branding. We live in the age of brand power. And for some safety and health pros, that’s a distinct advantage.

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