On a recent vacation, I visited a U.S. Life Saving Service (USLSS) station at Indian River, DE and learned about these dedicated and brave, albeit crazy, “surfmen” who man these coastal stations along the east coast and Great Lakes. One of the USLSS’s mottos: “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.” This motto struck a chord regrading commitment.

When it comes to safety, does the CEO really matter?

I think most, if not all, of us would agree, the CEO matters a lot when it comes to safety. The frustration many safety professionals face is when their CEO fails to express and demonstrate his or her commitment to safety to the workforce.

In the past decade or so, there has been a marked decline in injuries across essentially all industry sectors, both public and private. Unfortunately, the severity of injuries, including fatalities, appears to be on the rise. Organizations focus their attention on the “root causes” of this phenomenon with the laudable intent of reducing or eliminating whatever is causing these injuries.

Are all of these efforts to diminish serious injuries truly productive? Too often, organizations reach out to safety consultancies to “fix” their injury mess.  The CEO sees the costs associated with these internal and external efforts to ultimately implement what seems to be the “program-of-the-month,” coupled with the pathetic results, and the result is an angry and disappointed CEO.

“Getting it”

A friend and colleague recently shared an experience of a CEO whose company needed to significantly reduce capital spending.  Cuts were determined thoughtfully from a business value perspective. The CEO told the chief engineer to put a process in place to ensure necessary expenditures would maintain safe and environmentally sound operations.  This was one CEO who “Got It.”

Not “Getting It”

Another example:  A CEO became concerned after learning that of 14 major firms in her industry her organization’s safety performance placed them at number 12. Her response was to establish corporate injury rate reduction goals and delegate getting it done to her subordinates. When the goals weren’t met she blamed her people for poor performance. Never did she realize she wasn’t providing the visible leadership to establish the tone at the top necessary to initiate the needed culture shift.  The CEO eventually was forced out when an incident occurred where three employees were killed and three more badly injured.

This cycle of “fixing” and “re-fixing” safety to reduce injuries has been repeated over and over again for decades.  Often organizations generally achieve or come close to the results they have set out for themselves; however, over time, sustaining or improving those results becomes a daunting task to maintain.  Too often safety pros become trapped in the paradigm of believing that all they need to do is apply a favorite safety fad and they will experience different and better results.  Sometimes this works, but most of the time it doesn’t.

The current climate

Pressure from Wall Street and investors has created a business climate in the past several decades causing CEOs and senior-level managers to become overly obsessed with quarterly earnings reports. Limited to no attention is given to their role when it comes to the safety of their employees. Safety doesn’t come close to the top of their list of daily issues they confront.

In May of this year, Don Blankenship, the past CEO of Massey, began serving a maximum one-year sentence for his conviction related to the 2010 Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion that killed 29 miners. Reports indicate Blankenship micromanaged the mining operations and saw safety laws as costing money.  Drawing on the surfmen quote, Blankenship’s motto could have been “You have to go into the mine, but you don’t have to come out.”

The Wall Street Journal reported on August 30, 2016 that BHP Billiton CEO Andrew Mackenzie’s annual bonus worth millions was scrapped by the Billiton Board of Directors after a November 5th mining-dam failure in Brazil that killed 19 people.1 Although the final chapter of this disaster has not been written, do CEO Mackenzie and his fellow mining industry CEOs “Get It?”

In recent years, many newly minted CEOs have been promoted from non-operations/manufacturing segments of the corporation (e.g., legal, finance, etc.) having little to no knowledge or even interest in safety. In their previous roles their greatest risk during the workday may have been a papercut or a hot coffee spill.

Here’s another example of a CEO who “Doesn’t Get It.” His company was cited for numerous safety violations that caused several severe injuries. The CEO hired a safety consulting firm to “fix” the safety mess. When the consultants met with the CEO and laid out his roles and accountabilities to lead the safety transformation, he said, “I thought you were going to handle all those actions and activities!” Safety performance failed to improve and the consulting firm ultimately terminated the relationship.

What to do?

So what is a safety professional to do? After all, safety pros have a limited access to their CEO and often their boss (i.e., VP of EHS) is not a safety professional who has come up through the ranks of the safety profession. Still, here are some thoughts you can convey to your boss and hopefully he or she will have the courage to bring the message of safety leadership to the CEO. The CEO must:

 First and foremost, display a personal commitment to the safety of his/her employees, especially those who face the risk of injury in their daily routine. 

  • Impress upon his direct reports and their reports down through the organization the importance of integrating safety into all business decisions. 
  • Insist that all employees be given the opportunity to participate and have an authentic say in creating and implementing all safety initiatives. 
  • Persist in delivering his or her expectations when it comes to safety.  The CEO must set reasonable and achievable safety goals with a bit of stretch and refrain from dictating unreasonable goals. 
  • Promote an environment where senior leadership actually listens to employees’ suggestions with attribution and their complaints without retribution. 
  • Regularly review the overall safety program and the staff’s role in the success of that program. Share the outcome of reviews with the entire organization to seek further input that can lead to greater success.

1  MacDonald, A. 30 August 2016. BHP Scraps Chief’s Annual Bonus. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 2 September 2016 at http://www.wsj.com/articles/bhp-billiton-withholds-bonus-of-ceo-andrew-mackenzie-1472574659.