Emphasizing Workplace Safety Increases, Not Decreases, Your Productivity

The relationship between safety and productivity has a perception problem in American workplaces.

In 2015, the National Safety Council found that one third of American workers believe that their employers place a higher value on productivity than they do on safety. Given the choice between putting resources towards a safer work environment or towards increased output, the perception goes, managers would rather improve production. Perhaps not surprisingly, workers in high-risk industries arrive at this conclusion far more often than their relatively safer peers. 60 percent of construction workers and 52 percent of those in the agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting fields felt that management valued the product more highly than the producer.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s numbers seem to back up employee attitudes. 24 percent of all workplace fatalities in 2015 came from construction jobs, and three of the top 10 most frequently violated OSHA standards also involved construction-related categories. An obvious conclusion would be to push for increased safety standards, but perhaps the problems are enforcing the current standards and that companies ultimately value production over worker safety. Mike Rowe, host of the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs,” inadvertently made the case for wary employees when he scoffed at increased safety standards while on the job. “Making money is more important than safety—always.”

You might think having to choose between safety and productivity would be a tough position for a manager to be in.

Except that the data suggests it’s no choice at all. Taking a deeper look into the data reveals an unexpected and certainly very encouraging twist.

A few years ago, Steve Ludwig sampled data to compare companies with the highest levels of efficient output to those with the lowest frequency of injury. He used statistics from Rockwell Automation's Safety Maturity Index, which defines the relationship between safety and productivity. His conclusions should open the eyes of any manager who may still cling to any sort of belief that productivity suffers when paired with an emphasis on safety.

workplace safety

Ludwig discovered that Best in Class companies—those that score in the top 20 percent of aggregate performance scores—were also the companies exhibiting the lowest injury frequency rate. In fact, their injury frequency of 0.05 percent was 18 times better than average and 60 times better than the worst performers.

The explanation? "Best in class companies understand that safety and productivity are complementary," Ludwig said. "If we can reduce injury rate by half, then we can also increase both overall equipment effectiveness and unscheduled downtime."

Let’s unpack that a bit further. Sure, a company could save money and hours by ignoring a safety hazard or by pushing a review a few months past the deadline. By forgoing any downtime associated with a brief work stoppage, they increase their output by a fraction and are pleased if the workforce goes home healthy. Companies that behave this way tend to equate safety with the absence of accidents and end up tricking themselves into thinking that the precautions they’re taking are sufficient, when in reality, all they’ve done is gotten lucky for longer than usual. It’s a short-term thought process that parallels dangerously with tragedy and ultimately results in injury, stoppage, and loss.

On-the-job accidents actually account for significantly more loss than adherence to safety standards ever could. Consider the National Safety Council’s infographic on the True Cost of Workplace Injuries. Losses include far more than a worker’s recovery time or damages, not to mention personal loss to the workers and their friends and family. Administrative costs, fines, and medical bills factor in. An inexcusable accident in the hands of a savvy social media activist could be a nightmare for public relations staff, particularly if the injury is not the first of its kind. Indirect variables, such as prestige and the company’s desirability as a landing spot for potential employees can also suffer, as they hinge upon having clean, marketable reputations.

Conversely, the Best in Class companies Ludwig referenced take a different approach. They balance production and safety using a concept called “safe production” rather than putting the two in competition. A company should weave worker safety with safe production into the fabric of its culture. This merging can be done by including an emphasis on worker safety in its job descriptions and by talking about worker safety both formally and informally. Expectations on the project level and constantly reviewing and improving safety standards help companies reduce their accidents and see the highest, most consistent levels of production.

In other words, ensuring that a workforce is informed through daily action, feels secure, and is able to come to work every day without suffering injury or seeing others do so is the most effective way to keep your production levels high. And a healthy, productive workforce is the best way to combat any perception problem. 

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