"Safety for everyone” is the tagline of a 60-second Honda commercial you might have seen this fall. It tugs at the heart strings. A series of images is accompanied by voice-overs:

“He’s the best father and husband you could ask for,” says a mother holding a baby.

“My brother, he’s just a big kid,” says a sister.

“He stopped by yesterday just to chat,” says an older woman, possibly his mother.

“He taught me how to steal a base,” says a young boy, perhaps a nephew.

“Great guy, best man at my wedding. Just don’t ask him to dance,” jokes a co-worker wearing a hard hat in warehouse.

“Honestly this place would fall apart without him,” says an older man, the boss.

Then a dramatic pause…

The mom with the baby sheds tears. The older woman sits down and frowns, ready to cry. The co-worker stops in his tracks, a worried look on his face.

A young man leaving work steps out from behind a stack of pallets, directly in the path of an oncoming car. The driver doesn’t see him.

“Collisions affect more than those involved,” states the commercial. “That’s why we make vehicles that can brake before you do.”

The young man sees the car and his face freezes. The car lurches to a sudden stop. The driver puffs out his cheeks and blow a sigh of relief. Whew, a close call.

All the characters pick up where they left off. Smiles all around. The beat, life, goes on. Thankfully.

Then comes the tagline: “Safety for everyone.”

The myth of slogans

The first time I saw this commercial, complete with romantic piano music softly tinkling in the background, I reacted badly. That statement at the end bugged me: “Safety for everyone.” It reminded me of other slogans: “Safety first.” “Think safety.”

Sounds reasonable. Who can argue with “Safety for everyone” or “Safety first”? What annoyed me was both are a lie.

Nine times out of ten – at least – safety does not come first. Frontline workers know this. It makes a company, a brand, seem socially responsible. Caring. With morals in the proper place. But then there’s reality: profits, competition, production goals, growth goals, shareholder demands, time pressures, doing more with less, OT, fatigue, shortcuts, supervisors looking the other way, oftentimes a lack of safety resources – money and staffing.

Dan Petersen wrote in 2004 the first job of leaders is to define reality. He said historically corporate leaders do not define reality in terms of employee safety and health. That still holds true.

Petersen said management often writes safety policy or vision statements, and then fails to enforce it on the job. Still true.

Often, frontline business leaders genuinely believe they are doing everything they can for their workers. They are complacent, and self-congratulatory about safety. True.

Lack of leadership

I recently queried safety experts on why many senior business leaders underachieve when it comes to safety leadership. This is how one responded:

“I am a bit jaded at this point. I rarely see the fortitude necessary to change a culture that often requires in many cases the wholesale removal of upper, middle, and lower managers who are unwilling to make the change.

“I have been contracted on several occasions following a severe accident or fatality by upper management to evaluate the firm’s EHS programs. These exercises are usually a predestined effort by management to try and fix blame on the EHS staff rather than understanding that accountability starts with the CEO on down.

“Low probability/high consequence events tend not to catch the attention of management (facility or corporate) unless these folks have personally experienced a tragedy where they have to tell a family member about the severe injury or fatality of a loved one. This is often when management ‘gets religion’.”

“Safety for everyone.” “Safety first.” “Everyone goes home whole and healthy every day.” These are vision statements, not reality. Sometimes they are issued by well-intentioned senior leaders distanced from safety on the floor and ignorant of frontline practices. A few times they do come from companies seriously committed to safety. But many times they are hollow slogans.

Enough with the rhetoric

What did W. Edwards Deming famously say about slogans? Point 10 on Deming’s list of 14 Points for western management:

“Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the workforce asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.”

Yes, drop the safety slogans and exhortations and concentrate on the systems, devised in corporate suites and on the shop floor, that produce injuries and fatalities.

Honda says it is passionate about safety; not just for everyone who gets into one of its vehicles, but other drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians. Prevent a collision, says Honda, and you’re not just protecting the lives on those on the road, but the lives of everyone who cares about them. So everyone deserves safety and protection.

Of course. But why does OSHA have a miniscule budget and staff? Why does it take 20 years to produce a safety standard? Why is a safety manager often seen as a cop on the beat? Someone to avoid. Why do some companies keep double books on injuries? Why did one safety manager tell me his job was to create cognitive dissonance in his company?

Safety vision and mission statements must be backed up by reality. Constant vigilance. Resources. Capacity. Whistleblower protections. Business leadership involvement. A culture of caring values. Audits. Meetings. Training. Procedures. Discipline. Recognition. Plan-do-check-act systems. Listening to where workers say the next accident is going to occur.

It’s hard work turning slogans into reality.


—  Dave Johnson, ISHN Editor, johnsond@bnpmedia.com