I was riding back to the Detroit Metro Airport with a van load of editors. We were fresh from an all hands on deck meeting at the headquarters of ISHN’s parent company, BNPMedia.

We talked about the common practice of magazines profiling companies in their respective industries. The editors travel to the site, interview key execs, tour the facilities, take photos, and often turn these pieces into cover stories for their magazines.

The fellow sitting next to me asked if we did these kinds of company profiles in ISHN. I said, “No, actually, a lot of companies don’t want to talk much about their safety.”

“Why’s that?” he asked.

Many companies are touchy about safety. Which is ironic because internally it is often not a touchy subject. In fact, it will not come up much at board meetings, etc.

Many CEOs and plant managers don’t think all that much about safety practices or performance day to day. Obviously their plates are full. Many leave safety to “the safety guy.” No or few questions asked, unless there is a serious injury or worse, a fatality.

So why be touchy about safety if it’s not that big a deal?

Another way of looking at this is in terms of transparency. Openness. Why aren’t companies more open about their safety practices and outcomes? Even companies with better than industry average safety records often don’t want to talk publicly about their safety efforts. I explained to my editorial brethren in the van that though companies may not give much attention to safety beyond OSHA compliance requirements, companies do not want the reputation or public image of not caring about their employees.

Oh, and they are afraid that OSHA inspectors, after reading a magazine article about a company’s safety work, will come knocking for an inspection. Don’t raise a red flag.

So many companies do not want to be put on the spot about safety by an inquiring editor. Again, even if their recordables are low, they don’t particularly want to answer questions such as: When was the last time you had a serious injury? When was the last fatality? What were the causes? Have you had any OSHA violations in the past 2-3 years?

The fellow in the van next to me nodded his head. Even though he knows nothing about workplace safety, as an editor he can understand why this line of questioning is not welcomed by many companies.

This is where I find a number of companies’ attitude and posture about safety and health in their workplace confounding. The default setting, if you will, is defensive. “Don’t ask me about problems.” “We really don’t want to talk about injuries and fatalities. Puts us in a bad light.”

But on the other hand, most companies will tell anyone, “We value safety. Absolutely. We take it seriously every day. Our people are our most important asset. Safety first. Safety is a priority.”

Well, the editor in me asks: “So if you value safety, make it a priority, and do this that and the other thing to protect your workers — why don’t you want to discuss it? Why not be more open about it?”

Now there are exceptions of course. About 2,000 companies that fly OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) flag are not defensive about safety. They are aggressively positive. They list their subject matter experts in various safety areas in a networking guidebook so other VPP sites can contact them for advice and discussions. At the annual meeting of VPP sites, companies proudly showcase their safety processes and take to the podium to share best practices.

Also, companies in the same vertical industry, say petrochem or pharmaceuticals or semiconductors, will network and benchmark within their tight little peer groups.

There are two instances I can think of where companies will open up about safety and health:

First, a company sees the connection between their good safety record and having a good public image and brand reputation, and they want to “use” safety to underscore their overall good corporate citizenship. These companies will open their doors to press reporters and don’t mind discussing past negative experiences because they are secure in their own minds about the value they place on safety, the care, the time and money they invest in workplace safety.

But these are the exceptions.

In the second case, a company wants publicity on how it has turned around its safety performance. It wants to get the word out it is no longer a “bad guy.” So last June ISHN published a cover story on McWane. McWane got a wicked black eye from the media after The New York Times ran a serious of articles a few years back about McWane’s many and varied safety problems. McWane gave us excellent access to supervisors, line employees, top execs.

Massey in mining is going through the same media bashing. And in response, Massey’s CEO did an interview with The Wall Street Journal explaining the company’s new, revitalized safety program. BP is also caught in the media headlights for safety lapses of disastrous proportions. Go to their web site and you find the company making amends through numerous actions. You find openness. Links to the Deepwater Horizon Accident, How We Responded, Gulf of Mexico Restoration, and “how we continue to fulfill our responsibilities.”

It’s weird. Everyone talks up safety. But many companies don’t want to talk about it. Not for publication. That lack of openness is troublesome. Safety should be something a company takes pride in, not something it closes the door on.