Excellent Safety = Excellent Business – yes, but is it cause or (just) correlation?


For the most part, gone are the days of managers only valuing health and safety because it saves them money on incidents and injuries. Generally speaking, we have seen a shift in perception that now relates excellent safety with excellent business. A good manager knows that good health and safety can do more than just decrease costs, but what about a great manager? Do they only see the correlation, or do they believe that its cause? All of the experts that Larry invited for this round of discussions work for companies that have achieved both excellent safety and excellent business performance. Thus, they are the perfect candidates to shed light on this topic, by not only sharing what they believe, but what they think their senior managers and executives believe as well.

Larry begins each panel discussion by asking the panelists if they think their senior leaders believe its correlation, causation, or – quite frankly – if they don’t care. Ahmed Khalil (EHS Director – Bahrain Petroleum Company), from the Middle East panel answers candidly. He says, “if you don’t see the correlation then there is something seriously wrong in that organization”. In other words, believing in the correlation is the bare minimum. This sentiment is echoed by many other panelists, such as David Bianco (Global SafeStart Program Manager – Epiroc), who asserts that “the correlation piece is a bit of a given”. Teg Matthews (Vice President – SafeStart), who conducts focus groups with leaders of fortune 500 companies, estimates that roughly 90% of the leaders he talks to see the correlation. As for the causation… well, the answer is not so simple.

Firstly, some of the panelists believe that it is necessary to define what “good business is”. “Is it only financial? Unidirectional?” says Salman Abdulla (Executive Vice President – Emirates Global Aluminum), “or the wellbeing of the people, reputation in the market, reputation with investors, or the wellbeing of the plant and planet”. If it’s the latter, then “yes, it’s a very direct causation”, he says.

Larry then asked the panelists if their leadership had made the connection between human error and injury causation and human error causing quality problems or production problems. Or to put it another way, do they see the direct cause; human error and the reduction of human error as being the reason excellent safety equals excellent business. Arun Subramanian (Head HSE – Coromandel) shares that he believes that the causation is very clear at a higher level in management, but when you go to lower levels of management, that clarity is yet to set in. Anupam Begchi (Head SHE, Mines & Minerals – Hindalco Industries Ltd.) shares that at their monthly safety reviews, if there is a perception that someone is not seeing the cause and effect relationship, then that individual is counselled and observed until they feel that he or she believes the causation is there.

Alex Carnevale (President – Dynacast) explained that when he was working at Etex as the Chief Performance Officer, rather than hypothesizing that good safety causes good business performance, he said that they believed that “the same things that cause good safety results cause great traditional business results” and got very explicit about what that means to them: “engagement, attention to detail, and turning things from ideas to action. These things are pretty apparent in terms of driving good safety results”, he says, “but those are also the same things you need to do to get good quality, efficient productivity and to get advancements in your factories”. He explains that this thinking helped enable leaders to come in with the message that they care about these things, with the added benefit of helping to eliminate any tension between safety and the rest of the business. Likewise, Peter Batrowny (“President & CEO – PB Global EHS, Inc.) explains that while some leaders might not actually care if its cause or correlation, they definitely see the value of integrating safety into their business processes. For example, many companies have separate incident investigations for production and quality upsets than for safety, whereas many of the best performing organizations integrate them.

In this regard, Larry shares that he actually thinks there is a bit more maturity around “justice” with safety than there is for a production or quality error. “If someone sends 3 truckloads of product to the second-best customer instead of the best customer, likely nothing happens other than he or she gets told if they do it again they will be fired”, he says, “but if a worker backed a fork truck off of the loading dock and got seriously injured there would be all kinds of root cause analysis”. He points out that while we all know that nobody is ever trying to get hurt, nobody is ever trying to make a production, quality, or customer service error either. “So”, he says, “do you think these “Performance” errors are likely caused by the same things that cause or contribute to the injuries: like rushing, frustration, fatigue and complacency, or a combination of these states?”. All the panelists nod in agreement. Bipin Sharan (Head Safety – TATA Motors) adds to this by explaining that they have created a tool called “human error root cause analysis”, which while initially created for safety incident investigations, is now being used for all activities and errors in the organization. So obviously, they are seeing that it’s “cause” and not just correlation.

But Those are also the same things you need to do to get good quality, efficient productivity and to get advancements in your factories

Although the panelists believe that the causation is there, as do many of their managers and senior leaders, the understanding of what exactly is causing excellent business remains unclear. For example, Pierre-Jean Paumard (HSE Manager – Taweelah RO Desalination Company) explains that while “we really believe that business performance comes with good safety performance, when we went a bit deeper and I asked, ‘what are those relations?’, we rarely talk about human factors [and] human error”. “We talk about equipment, methodology, light, ventilation… we do things towards eliminating human error, but we don’t talk about it directly”. Teg agrees, saying that “there’s that belief on an intellectual level, but when you start drilling down and looking at it from a practical perspective people don’t really know what it looks like, unless they have [passionate] leadership that makes it crystal clear throughout the organization.” To this end, Alex emphasizes the need to look at the inputs for good business performance rather than just looking at the outputs. “If you really understand what drives the business performance for your company, it’s your people. People make mistakes. Mistakes cause problems, the worst of those are serious injuries. Once everyone can see it from that perspective, everything becomes much easier”.

But is a worker backed a fork truck off of the loading dock and got seriously injured there would be all kinds of root cause analysis

So, if it appears that it doesn’t matter whether its cause or just a strong correlation – if the end result is good business performance anyway – this might not seem to be worth discussing with your senior managers. After all, they’re busy and if they are giving you enough support now, then why bother? However, as many of the panelists explained, if you believe in the causality then you can start looking for the inputs that help drive good safety and business performance. If you’re able to identify what they are, then you know which ‘levers’ to press to keep getting good or better results. Believing in the correlation is important, certainly, but there’s a chance you will be missing out on opportunities for improvement. Why aim for ‘good’ when you could be getting ‘great’? Or, to put it in the terms of this topic, why settle for correlation when you could be leveraging the cause?