Making the business case for safety

Appeal to executives' heads and hearts to get buy-in

Noël Després has seen what it takes for a company to transform its safety performance. At Comeau’s Sea Foods, it took a great deal of effort over several years, and required a change in outlook among senior managers.

“We changed our safety culture. Safety was there, but it was not in the forefront,” recalls the general manager and COO of the Saulnierville, N.S.-based company, which employs 500 workers at processing plants, testing facilities, a dry dock and fishing boats. “We turned it around miraculously. It was a lot of hard work.”

In each of 2011 and 2012, Comeau’s reduced lost-time injury claims by 50 per cent. Last year, the Workers’ Compensation Board of Nova Scotia (WCBNS) recognized the company for its safety leadership and significantly improved safety outcomes.

“It was a very emotional time, when we received the award,” Després says. “We wanted to show the employees that we had turned a corner and safety was number 1 in our company.”

The success of an organization’s OHS program depends on the support of those at the top. Yet, it is often up to safety professionals to persuade executives that, by buying into safety, they can not only help keep workers safe but also improve the bottom line.

“The business case for safety is straightforward,” says Ben Amick, senior scientist at the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) in Toronto. “Safe organizations are higher performing.”

Workers in organizations that care about safety are more likely to work according to safe practices, he says. Safe working procedures also reduce turnover, help build morale and increase productivity.

Most important, Amick adds, safe procedures help protect workers. Once, he recalls, during a tour of a manufacturing plant, a supervisor introduced him to a man seated away from the main work area. The man had acquired carpel tunnel surgery and wore braces on both wrists.

“As we walked away, the supervisor told me, ‘He was my best worker,’” he says. “If people are an important part of your business, then what other business case for safety do you have to make?”

Looking at the financial benefits of safety, it’s important to consider both direct and indirect costs of workplace accidents, says Karla Thorpe, director of workplace health and wellness research with the Conference Board of Canada, based in Ottawa, which runs the Health and Safety Leadership Centre.

These can range from medical expenses and replacement labour to downtime, injury claims administration and legal fees. Some organizations provide templates to help companies calculate the full cost of an incident.

“It’s only by looking at some of the cost savings that an organization can start to understand the ROI of investing in health and safety practices,” she says.

By supporting the organization’s safety culture, executives increase its ability to attract highly skilled, motivated people and make it more competitive by building a reputation with customers, investors and the public, says Thorpe.

In making their case, she recommends safety professionals appeal not just to leaders’ heads but also to their hearts. Ask an injured employee to relate how his accident has affected him and his family.

“It’s the human element,” she says. “At the end of the day, health and safety programs are designed to protect workers from harm.”

Thorpe says senior managers should demonstrate visible commitment to OHS initiatives — discussing safety at meetings, acknowledging employees’ contributions to OHS and recognizing people who follow safety policies. They should also act as role models, wearing helmets and safety goggles when they tour facilities.

Many organizations across Canada have embraced a leadership safety charter. Safe Saskatchewan in Regina began working on a charter in 2008 to address the province’s workplace injury rate, the second highest in Canada (after Manitoba).

“We knew we needed help in looking at health and safety in a different way,” says CEO Gord Moker. “It almost seems as if we, as a society, don’t value injury prevention the way we could.”

Today, the Saskatchewan Health & Safety Leadership Charter has 341 signatories. These business, union, government and community leaders have committed themselves to the charter’s seven principles — as well as one further goal.

“Signing the charter is also a commitment to invest and to believe in Mission Zero, our philosophy that the only acceptable number of injuries at work, at home, at play, on our farms and roads, is zero,” Moker says.

Nova Scotia will launch a CEO charter later this year. When leaders come together, they become champions for what needs to happen in an organization, says Stuart MacLean, CEO of the WCBNS in Halifax.

“This safety charter is about being visible, about having people at the top of organizations make a visible commitment to something that’s important in their workplace,” he says.

Other charters across Canada include Newfoundland and Labrador’s Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission (WHSCC)’s CEO Safety Charter, and the FIOSA-MIOSA Safety Alliance of BC’s BC Safety Charter.

A safety charter proved very successful in helping build commitment at Comeau’s Sea Foods, says Després. The heads of all departments renew their pledge to safety annually.

“It’s like a mortgage. If you sign your name on the line, you start saving pennies. It’s the same with the safety charter. Once they’ve signed this charter, it’s a commitment,” he says.

The company’s strategy, developed with WCBNS, focused first on production facilities. Executives visited plants regularly. Després resolved to strengthen the company’s joint health and safety committee and encouraged other managers to participate in its meetings.

Comeau’s also began requiring workers to report incidents immediately to a supervisor or boat captain, a step that increased reporting and improved data collection.

“Our most important asset is employees,” Després says. “We live in a rural area, and we know everyone. And we need people every day. Our motto is, they come to work in the morning, and they all go home safely. That’s our goal.”

Currently, the role executives play in the effectiveness of safety policies is the subject of much research.

For example, a study conducted by Lynda Robson, associate scientist at the IWH, showed that middle managers are often responsible for major improvements in safety performance. In three out of four mid-sized Ontario companies studied, mid-level individuals, including an EHS co-ordinator and an HR manager, drove the improvement.

“That’s where the sustained energy, creativity, influx of new ideas were happening — at the mid-level. They ended up being the motor of change,” she says.

Robson’s research suggested senior managers should establish regular communication with safety personnel. Also, they can play a more effective role when they prioritize safety with other functions (such as production or quality), ensure it is measured and reported on, and hold people accountable.

They should also ensure continual improvement, which includes providing resources for safety staff.

“It’s too easy to settle for compliance with the law,” says Robson.

In his research at the IWH, Amick found that companies with strong safety leadership tend also to be strong in what he calls “safety diligence.”

“It’s a concern for things. If someone’s not wearing safety glasses, they’re told to put them on. They have ergonomic policies and practices in place not just to help people not get injured but also, once they’re injured, get them back to work. And they have strong disability management policies,” he says. “An organization that’s doing well in health and safety isn’t doing well in (just) one thing — it’s across the board.”

Comeau’s is always seeking ways to improve its OHS program. To increase worker commitment to safety and promote new ideas, for example, employees are asked to lead brief weekly safety, or “tool-box,” meetings.

“It takes time and commitment. That’s the key,” says Després. “You don’t get it done in a year; you get it done in two years. But when you are there, it’s like winning the gold.”
Linda Johnson is a freelance writer based in Toronto. She can be reached at  [email protected].