3 examples of leaders showing their commitment to safety

Written by Esteban Tristan, Corporate Safety Director

Please stop and think for a moment. What is your favorite example of a leader showing great commitment to safety at your workplace? What did she or he do? What was great about it? And I’m just curious on this one – did it take you a while to think of one?

It’s important to define what commitment to safety should look like at our organizations, and there are certainly plenty of great examples from within the industry that we can learn from. I’d like to share a few different examples of leaders’ actions that demonstrate their commitment to safety.

Driving deep safety culture change – Paul O’Neill at Alcoa

Mr. O’Neill ushered in a new era of commitment to safety at the aluminum giant Alcoa back in the late ‘80s. At the time, his singular and primary focus on employee safety was quite rare in manufacturing, and most other industries. While many organizations paid lip service to safety back then, O’Neill showed he really meant it, and the culture change he brought to life was significant and inspiring. He served as chairman and CEO of Alcoa from 1987 to 1999, and at the start of his tenure, Alcoa was expected to begin aggressive business expansions. Yet to everyone’s amazement, the first thing he announced upon taking over was that his top priority would actually be…safety?

I love one particular story shared by Mark Roth in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette back in 2012, ‘Habitual excellence’: The workplace according to Paul O’Neill, about O’Neill visiting their smelter plant in east Tennessee shortly after he took over as CEO. When meeting with managers and union leaders, he famously told the managers:

“From now on, we’re not going to budget for safety. As soon as anyone identifies anything that could get someone hurt, I want you to fix it and I will figure out how to pay for it.”

He then turned around and gave the union leaders his home phone number and told them that if management did not do what he said, they could call him personally. About three weeks later, this promise was put to the test when a production employee called to tell O’Neill that a conveyor belt was broken at the smelter and workers were being forced to manually hoist 600-point ingots. How did O’Neill respond? He immediately called the plant manager and told him to get to the plant and get the belt fixed immediately. Hours later, it was fixed, helping to set the tone at Alcoa for years to come.

This is just one example of how O’Neill put safety first and backed up his words with meaningful and immediate action. He believed that safety was part of a larger goal of creating ‘habitual excellence’ and this helped the organization to significantly improve their safety performance even further (from a lost day rate of 1.86 down to 0.2). This was despite receiving significant resistance from Alcoa’s Board of Directors about the costs of his focus on safety. I have to believe this skepticism from the Board eroded over the years, as the company increased its market value from $3 billion to over $27 billion during his tenure. 

Responding when the chips are down – Elon Musk at Tesla

You may not think of safety at all when you think of entrepreneur and inventor Elon Musk, who is the founder and CEO of multiple organizations, including Tesla Motors and SpaceX. In fact, that is not why I am bringing him up here (this post is not claiming he is any type of skilled safety professional or visionary!) But I wish to highlight something he did at Tesla which I thought showed some genuine, personal investment in safety.

Over the years, injury rates had spiked at Tesla’s massive Fremont, CA automobile plant which now employs over 20,000 employees. In 2015, the site reportedly had a Total Recordable Incident Rate (TRIR) of 8.8, which was 31% higher than the average rate for the auto manufacturing industry (6.7). The rate was 8.1 in 2016, showing very little improvement. More importantly, their Days Away, Restricted or Transferred (DART) rate, which represents more serious injuries requiring days away, restricted duty, or job transfer, was nearly double the industry average.

So how did Elon respond? After an initial communication to employees introducing company changes to improve safety – such as significantly less overtime to reduce fatigue and investing heavily in ergonomic changes – Elon wrote a personal email, which you can read here, to all employees where he asked that:

“Every injury be reported directly to me, without exception” and that he intended to “meet every injured person as soon as they are well, so that I can understand from them exactly what we need to do to make it better. I will then go down to the production line and perform the same task that they perform.”

Musk also went on to state in the same message that he had begun meeting with the safety team every week, and emphasized the importance of all Tesla managers doing the same things, in order to:

“Lead from the front line, not from some safe and comfortable ivory tower.”

This indicated to managers that they needed to make their teams’ safety their biggest priority. It seems this response and their safety improvements had a positive impact, as the company stated that they had nearly cut their TRIR in half at the start of Q2 the following year.

What I particularly like about this example is how Musk responded in a personal way, showing empathy and concern for his employees. He was willing to put some skin in the game by spending time with injured employees and down on the production floor in an effort to better understand the work and its potential hazards.

More importantly, he encouraged his management team to do the same. I imagine that a guy who is CEO of multiple large companies, chairman of others, and is worth over $200 billion is probably pretty busy. Heck, I know plant managers and VPs at sites with less than 200 employees who don’t come out on the floor for weeks or ever talk to an injured employee.

Hopefully he continues to follow through on these commitments, but I think we can all learn a lot from this type of response from an executive when times get tough and people are getting hurt. 

Holding yourself to the same standards – HR Manager at a global manufacturing plant

This one is just a quick but powerful example that has always stayed with me. A few years ago, I was working with a global manufacturing company at one of their US sites, and the HR manager was greatly invested and involved in safety there. She shared with me how one day, while in a hurry, she placed herself at risk of a fall by standing on a chair (with wheels) and reaching up to retrieve something from a shelf in a meeting room. The chair moved and she very narrowly escaped what could have easily been a serious fall.

Interestingly, when she got down from the chair, she looked through the window and noticed that an employee had seen her. She then shared how she immediately went out to talk to the employee to apologize for the poor safety example she had set, and instructed him to write her up for a violation of an existing and important safety rule. The employee, quite surprised, was naturally reluctant to do so and refused.

In response, the HR manager proceeded to fill out a form and “wrote herself up” for this action. More importantly, she shared that example with many employees in the weeks to come to explain why safety was so important, and why she regretted taking the risk that she took. It opened up a door for her to talk about safety personally, and connect with employees. Furthermore, it gained her a lot of respect and credibility as a safety leader it helped show employees that managers were subject to the same safety rules as everybody else in the company.

While you may or may not agree with the company having this type of disciplinary process for at-risk behaviors or safety violations, the point here is that this leader was willing to apply this process to herself when she easily could have avoided it, and then publicly shared the example and used it as a way to promote safety. That’s why I liked this short and simple example.

The three examples above give us just a few specific ways in which leaders can show personal commitment to safety. But these are just a few – there are so many different ways in which leaders can demonstrate that safety is a top priority. NSC 2022’s list of CEOs Who “Get It” provides additional examples of leaders who have made changes and implemented processes in their companies that demonstrate a strong commitment to safety. 

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