An executive coach says when he asks senior leaders what safety means to them, many pause and say, “Well, safety means everybody gets to go home.”  What, are we fighting a war? This idea of workers getting to “Return home each and every day” is popping up in corporate annual reports, CEO speeches, and corporate “values statements” on websites. It joins other safety clichés as such “Safety First” “Safety Above All” “Safety is Forever,” “No Safety No Business,” “With Safety, We Win.”

What’s new in this recent addition to the pantheon of safety adages is referencing “home,” and by extension “family.” You know, “Your family is waiting on you.” Or “Accidents hurt families as well as workers.”  Safety slogans traditionally have centered on the workplace. “Safety is first around here.” “Safety is equal to productivity and quality.” “The safe way is the only way to work.” 

Getting emotional

Now exhortations are more emotional by bringing in the family, home and hearth, and the kids into the picture. To be sure, you can’t argue with the devastating impact life-altering injuries or fatalities have on a family. That’s the beauty of most safety slogans and credos – you can’t argue with them. Leaders are keen to talk about safety in lofty terms that are hard to dispute – kind of like politicians going after votes. Who’s going to publicly argue that safety doesn’t come first around here? Or that zero accidents is unrealistic? Or that safety simply doesn’t equal the importance of production or quality?

Safety slogans are, well, safe. Just like politicians play it safe by saying only what voters want to hear. Corporate leaders play it safe by telling the workforce what it wants to hear in terms of safety. But most don’t go any deeper than that. Getting to go home to your family is the latest politically correct “safetyspeak” that really says more about the leader or the company than the workers. “Our company puts safety first.” “I want workers to go home in one piece every night.” In other words, the leader is a good corporate citizen. The company is a good place to work.

Extending work to the home is clever. Home has emotional strings attached. “Safety First” does not pull at heart strings. But tying safety to home and family seems timely as companies struggle with work-life balance. And companies and their leaders today want to be seen as caring. “Safety First” is not explicitly about caring. Sending workers home every night is.

True caring?

But if companies and execs truly care about home and family, why do health benefits get trimmed a bit more every year? The stability of families is shaken by the popular practices of outsourcing jobs to temps, contractors or cheap overseas operations. How many companies and execs aggressively try to recruit family members into wellness and health promotion programs, if they have them?

There are exceptions. Some companies do make the effort to bring families into the fold, hold picnics and holiday parties and wellness classes, smoke cessation and weight loss programs for family members. But they’re the minority in the age of globalization, deindustrialization, cost cutting and paltry economic growth.

Actions speak louder than words. Investments in safety controls beat investments in safety posters every time. A company or a CEO wants to make home and family part of the case for safety? OK, put money behind the rhetoric. Provide the health care coverage. Loosen up on flex time. Promote telecommuting. Get serious about the work-life balance issue and emotional, “caring” issues such as employees suffering from depression, disabling stress, and other mental health matters. The track record of most U.S. companies isn’t great when it comes to dealing with mental health. Europe is far ahead in recognizing and launching campaigns aimed at mental health issues.

Should workers go home free from job stress every day? In our John Wayne macho society job stress comes with the territory. Suck it up. But too many companies compound the problem by cutting back on staff, loading up key performance indicators, running lean, and keeping the pressure on. Ask long-haul truckers about their deadlines and hours worked.

If companies are going to bring home and family into the safety equation, get real. Take concrete steps to make the home more stable and the family more secure. This sounds like old school paternalism that went out the window with the guarantee of long-term employment. But that doesn’t hold true for all companies. Some do back up words with actions. Behind safety slogans we need to walk the talk, or as Dr. Deming said, stop using slogans and exhortations.