“Safety First”– Is Safety Your First Priority?

You’ve no doubt heard the slogans: “ Safety First ,” “Safety # 1,” “Safety is Our Highest Priority,” and a host of others that convey the same idea. Some companies go so far as to place this slogan on hardhat stickers or stop-authority wallet cards to drive home the idea that safety will not be compromised. These are well meaning efforts as their intent is to posture safety as the highest of all priorities to preclude anyone taking a shortcut on the job and placing himself at risk. But do these slogans really communicate the right message? [content_protector password=”priority” identifier=”priority”]

As well meaning as these slogans are, it’s questionable whether they are all that helpful in preventing unsafe behaviors and achieving the goal of a zero-injury safety culture. Why? Because as long as safety is placed in the category of “priority”—even if it’s at the top of the list—it will always be viewed as just one in a pool of priorities, all of which are constantly competing against each other for that first-place spot.

Imagine a plant worker who is under a production deadline. He holds safety as a first priority, but his supervisor has just let his crew know that due to unexpected maintenance and repairs their production volume is lower than it should be and he is under the gun to meet quota. On top of that, in order to earn the production bonus this month they are really going to need to make up the difference in a big way, “so guys, be safe, but git er done.”

The plant worker now faces a dilemma. Under normal circumstances safety is his highest priority, but he finds himself in abnormal circumstances and senses significant pressure to attend to the competing priority of a looming deadline. Normally he would not take shortcuts; but for the sake of accommodating the high-urgent situation he does just this one time. Safety is almost always his highest priority; but there are times when even the highest priority must give way (albeit temporarily) to a more urgent one. And when that happens, unsafe behaviors ensue and accidents follow.

Priorities are external ideals that are imposed on us, and they are driven by external factors like time, economy, and situations. They may be good for the here and now, but they change and give way to other competing priorities given the right conditions.

Values are different. Values are based on internal beliefs we hold; and because they are internal ideals they drive our behaviors and endure over the long haul. While we may feel free to swap one competing priority for another, we are not so quick to abandon a value no matter what the situation.

When held as an externally imposed priority, safety can and will be compromised. When held as an internal value—a belief—safety will never be compromised. Posturing safety as a core value aligned with and tied to other core values we hold is foundational to a sustainable safety culture. That is the starting point upon which we can build related cultural elements like leadership, communication, engagements and coaching. We’ll explore just how to do that in upcoming issues of Recordable Insights. In the meantime, please enjoy the associated video on our safetyBUILT-IN Vlog:


About the Author

Eric Svendsen
Eric Svendsen, Ph.D., is Principal and lead change agent for safetyBUILT-IN, a safety-leadership learning and development organization. He has over 20 years experience in creating and executing outcomes-based leadership development and culture change initiatives aligned to organizational goals, and he personally led the safety-culture initiatives of a number of client organizations that resulted in “best ever safety performance” years for those companies.