“Workplace safety is a subject I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and studying.”

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 success

O’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.”

Executive action

How do you get an organization to believe this? “You always must be constantly thinking about ways of refreshing the organization’s thinking about safety,” O’Neill said. Here are five steps O’Neill took:

  • Soon after coming to Alcoa, O’Neill called in the safety director to review the company’s performance. O’Neill was told Alcoa’s rates were below industry average. “That’s good,” said O’Neill. “But the goal is for no Alcoan to be hurt at work,” he told his safety director. No injuries down to first aid cases. “The only legitimate goal is zero,” O’Neill said. Otherwise, who’s going to volunteer to be that one annual case, or whatever? Getting to zero is a journey of discovery, O’Neill said, and at no point can you stop and say, “We’ve reached the point of diminishing returns and can’t afford to get better.”

  • Early on at Alcoa, O’Neill met with employees and gave them his home phone number. “I told them to call me if their managers didn’t fix” safety problems. What I was doing was making a point to my managers.”

  • O’Neill had 26 business unit vice presidents call him personally whenever their group experienced a lost-workday case. “This constantly engaged them about safety,” he said. It forced them to confront themselves: “Why do I have to make this call I hate to make?”

  • When Alcoa launched an internal computer network, safety information came online first, before marketing, sales or finance, according to O’Neill. Just another way to keep safety in front of employees and managers and reinforce that it is a pre-condition, he explained.

  • O’Neill told his financial people, “If you ever try to calculate how much money we save in safety, you’re fired.” Why? He didn’t want employees looking at safety as a “management scheme” to save money. “Safety needs to be about a human value. Cost savings suggest something else. Safety is not about money, it’s about constantly reinforcing its value as a pre-condition.”