When safety professionals attempt to justify a financial investment in safety to bosses or managers who think in terms of dollars instead of lives, they often cite the costs of workplace injuries to bolster their argument. Many organizations – including the National Safety Council and OSHA – have developed models to estimate the cost of a workplace injury, but predictions can vary. After all, it’s not easy to land on a dollar amount that accurately reflects the cost of a workplace injury, considering variables like a worker’s age and industry. We do know that direct costs of workplace injuries (like workers’ compensation, litigation, & medical expenses) added to indirect costs (things like administrative fees, bad publicity, loss of productivity and overtime costs necessitated by worker absence) can produce a formidable sum in the millions of dollars. Sometimes the fear of these colossal costs is enough to provoke positive change. For those decision-makers who aren’t swayed by the potential costs of inaction, why not consider the advantages of action? Bosses or managers who focus only on the financial return on investment can miss opportunities to enact beneficial and profitable changes at their company, because not every safety improvement will have an obvious (or measurable) business benefit — at first.
In his book Safety Manager’s Guide to Office Ergonomics, Craig Chasen writes about the unforeseen benefits of implementing his first ergonomics program as an EH&S manager at a large high-tech company in Boulder, Colorado. He began by attending a new employee orientation meeting every week and spending time with a new employee at their workstation to ensure a proper fit. The weekly orientation became a standard component of the safety program, and later, the risk management department began to notice that employee compliance with other safety activities – like hazcom and fire drills – was at an all-time high. Although the success of the safety program was initially attributed to vague notions like social awareness or the charisma of the current safety manager, an employee survey later revealed that those who participated in the ergonomic evaluation during their first week of employment later became “unwitting allies” of the safety program. The entire safety program, therefore, enjoyed higher rates of participation and success as a result of the assistance that employees received from the ergonomics assessment.
A Schneider Electric facility, discussed in an article by Safety+Health Magazine, provides another good example. The Schneider Electric facility had a floor level conveyor system that presented a tripping hazard, but the company believed that elevating the system would be too expensive. However, after an employee tripped and suffered a broken hip, the facility finally decided to elevate the system. Although the initial investment was around $1 million for the new equipment, the elevated conveyor eventually paid for itself by not only reducing a trip hazard, but improving the production process and increasing productivity as well. The elevated conveyor is a testament to how an initial investment in safety can bring unforeseen benefits to business over time.
When upper management has a tight clutch on the purse strings, sometimes only the possibility of making more money will loosen the grip. Identify the many ways in which safety makes money and improves production, and be mindful that many safety improvements don’t yield measurable results overnight. Investing in a safety program or new equipment may feel like a leap of faith without hard numbers to justify the expense — until you recognize the value of intangible improvements to worker morale and company safety culture. Although cost savings are an understandable motivator, safety’s biggest return on investment is — and should be — the lives of workers. When employers base decisions on whether it will keep workers safe — instead of cost savings — the rewards of a safe and productive business will inevitably follow.