Production Versus Safety in the Workplace

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Safety has to be accomplished in a way that also accommodates the company’s larger goals.In the workplace, production and safety are sometimes seen as two opposite ends of a spectrum. Every business wants to perform as quickly and efficiently as possible to maximize output and profits. Businesses also have a legal responsibility to keep their workers as safe as possible on the job, but safety procedures take time. Whenever a worker pauses to don protective gear, buckle a seatbelt, or wipe down a piece of equipment, precious seconds of production can be lost.

For this reason, says Terry Mathis, founder and CEO of ProAct Safety, “Many employees feel productivity pulls them in one direction while safety tugs in the other.”

Helping employees to manage these dual obligations is the responsibility of top managers who may have different perspectives on the issue. The safety aspect generally falls to the corporate safety manager, whose primary concern is establishing policies and procedures that will keep workers from harm. But he or she must accomplish this task in a way that accommodates the company’s larger goals.

This balancing act requires a skilled touch and specialized safety management knowledge that can be obtained in programs such as Eastern Kentucky University’s online Master of Science in Safety, Security and Emergency Management. Providing concentrations in occupational safety, corporate security, and emergency/disaster management, EKU’s curriculum can position graduates for success in the field of workplace safety or other positions.

Expensive Mistakes

If safety can be kept among the top three priorities in a company, the safety program likely will be successful, experts note. Issues can arise if it drops lower on the list.

The first issue in production versus safety may be a simple matter of phrasing. According to Tim Balmer, senior loss control consultant at Lockton Companies, the whole idea is flawed. “Neither one is more important than the other,” he argues. “A strong safety culture will both reduce employee injuries and increase profits.”

To support his point, Balmer gives the example of a business with a 3% profit margin that experiences 10 strain injuries. That business, he calculates, might need to increase its sales by more than $20 million to cover the total cost of those injuries.

Balmer further breaks down the costs of injuries and accidents to a business. Direct costs, he says, might include:

  • Medical costs
  • Indemnity payments

Indirect costs might include:

  • Lost time of injured employee, other employees on the line, and supervisors
  • Increased insurance costs
  • Damaged or spoiled product
  • Training new employees
  • Legal costs
  • Overhead costs

Why the Conflict?

A clear comparison of occupational health and safety costs, such as this one, makes keeping up with safety standards seem like a no-brainer. Yet companies regularly do rush production at the expense of safety. Terry Mathis believes this occurs for three main reasons:

  • Lack of strategy: The lack of a clear corporate strategy can cause confusion when two priorities seem to conflict. If workers have not been told a strategy, they may not understand the relationship between safety and productivity that leaders would prefer. This divide is particularly acute when supervisors direct production and safety professionals direct safety, creating a knowledge gap and leaving workers to guess at the big picture.
  • Conflicting organizational and safety strategies: In many organizations, safety strategies were developed by the safety department while organizational leaders created the business strategies, and there is no correlation between the two. Workers are forced to decide for themselves whether they should do what is good for the business or follow the safety plan. Too often, the safety plan falls by the wayside.
  • Disconnect between strategy and practice in the workplace: Even when an organization has a safety strategy that is aligned with the organizational strategy, workers may not follow safety rules. Poor communication of expectations is often the cause of this problem. The safety manager must constantly reinforce the rules to turn strategy into practice.

Human Error

Larry Wilson, CEO of Safestart International, believes there is a more fundamental reason for the production versus safety dilemma that has nothing to do with corporate pressure or communication. He feels that the problem is often a matter of human nature and the fact that people inevitably make mistakes. “Say a mechanic gets out to the job and realizes that he or she has forgotten the right set of Allen keys. The line is down. Everybody’s waiting. Now the mechanic is going to run. And as he pelts around the corner to his shop, he slips and falls. Ask him why the rush, and he is going to say, you guessed it, ‘for production,’” Wilson explains.

In this example, the worker was certainly sacrificing safety for production. But Wilson says that the root case was due more to his state of mind than anything else. “Working safely and following procedures really doesn’t take that much extra time. That is the reality. But when we’re behind, then any extra time taken becomes a bigger problem in our minds and thus it becomes easy to rationalize a shortcut or to start moving faster than you normally would. And once you start moving faster, your error rate goes up,” he says.

Finding a Balance

These safety factors fall under the purview of the safety manager, who must not only communicate expectations and strategies but also cope with the day-to-day reality of human fallibility. Wilson suggests that safety managers can discuss errors with workers and proactively develop strategies for handling them safely.

“Learning how to…stop the chain reaction of rushing, frustration, and fatigue, is entirely doable—but it takes some training, which means you have to spend a bit of time and effort to learn this skill. Once you do, you prevent more than just injuries. You also prevent quality errors, production errors, and errors with customers (internal or external), all of which improve overall business performance,” he says.

By aligning safety with productivity, safety managers can satisfy everyone while still minding the bottom line.

Eastern Kentucky University’s Master of Science in Safety, Security, and Emergency Management

Eastern Kentucky University’s online master’s degree in safety, security and emergency management program provides a convenient way for students to receive an online emergency management degree or other safety-related degree. This degree can be a stepping stone to a position as a safety manager or many other occupational health and safety careers.

Industry-experienced safety professionals guide students through occupational safety courses, covering modern trends in employee engagement and the establishment of a safety culture in the workplace. For more information, contact EKU today.

Recommended Reading:

Increasing Employee Engagement and Participation in Workplace Safety

Understanding Human Factors in Occupational Safety

Changing Workplace Culture for Improved Safety Performance


Production versus safety – Lockton Companies

Cost of accidents – EHS Today

Three reasons for errors – Lockton Companies

Human error – OH&S Online

Finding a balance – OH&S Online