Treasury chief gets blunt about safety
How many CEOs have you heard say that?
Paul O’Neill, former chief executive at Alcoa, Inc., and current U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, backed up those words during a luncheon speech at the Workplace Safety Summit, held in late March at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Proudly displaying a bar graph showing Alcoa’s lost-workday rate steadily declining during his years at the helm, from 1.86 cases per 100 workers in 1987 to 0.14 in February, 2001, O’Neill spoke about job safety with a hard-edged passion and understanding seldom heard from OSHA’s leaders, let alone the White House’s chief economic spokesman.
O’Neill explained his interest in safety this way: “A truly great organization must be aligned around values that bind the organization together,” he said. This is how companies withstand competitive pressures and operate consistently on a far-flung global basis. Great organizations have three characteristics, said O’Neill:
- Employees are treated with dignity and respect.
- They are encouraged to make contributions that give meaning to their lives.
Those contributions are recognized.
“Safety is a tangible way to show that human beings really matter,” said O’Neill. “Leadership uses safety to make human connections across the organization. Stamping out accidents (which at Alcoa O’Neill called “incidents”), and telling employees we can get to zero incidents is a way to show caring about people. This is leadership.”
Keys to successO’Neill’s safety philosophy includes these points:
- Leadership accepts no excuses, and does not excuse itself, when safety problems arise. O’Neill recounted the story of an 18-year-old Alcoa worker, three weeks into his new job and with a pregnant wife at home, who jumped over a waist-high barrier when a machine jammed — in full view of two supervisors — and was killed by a blow to the head after releasing the equipment. “We killed him,” O’Neill recalls telling a roomful of executives. “They didn’t like hearing that, but if you’re a leader, you’re accountable. You don’t have to be present when the incident happens. The leadership owns safety.”
- Simply caring about safety is “not nearly enough, not nearly enough,” O’Neill emphasized. He said some of his managers thought “tears in the eyes” after an injury or fatality was enough. “At the end of the day, caring alone is not enough to make sure that incident never happens again,” he said.
- What’s needed is for “safety to be as automatic as breathing,” O’Neill said. “It has to be something unconscious almost.”
- This won’t happen by leadership simply giving orders, according to O’Neill. “You need a process in place to get results.” A process based on leadership, commitment, understanding, and no excuses, he said. The safety process at Alcoa “will last long after they forget who I am,” he said.
- “Safety is not a priority at Alcoa, it is a precondition,” O’Neill explained. If a hazard needs to be fixed, it’s understood by supervisors and employees that “you do it today. You don’t budget for it next year.”