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Trade-off: “Safe means less productive”

An operator at a steel plant was adding alloys to a molten metal ladle. He was asked, “How do you know you’re doing it right?” The operator replied, “It depends. I have a metallurgic procedure in the blue binder and a safety procedure in the gray binder.” The operator, however, was using neither.

This example illustrates that safety and productivity are often perceived as antagonists. Most employees come to work to “get things done” and feel satisfied when they hit their targets. Unless management signals that safety is the priority, employees may conclude that it is acceptable to focus on productivity at the expense of safety.

One obvious way to combat this issue is for leaders to develop clear safety standards that take existing processes into account while integrating safety and productivity requirements. When these dueling processes aren’t integrated, employees can sometimes end up juggling incompatible requirements as they try to do their work, as in the case of the two binders. The failure to integrate these elements can also damage cross-functional relationships. HSE specialists, for example, may feel frustrated by how little influence they have over the operating teams, while operations managers may feel frustrated by the HSE function’s lack of appreciation for the difficulties they face.

In the case of the two binders, a continuous-improvement team conducted a workshop with operators, metallurgists, and HSE specialists to develop a standard procedure, which was then displayed in an easy-to-follow format close to the work station. The improvements to safety and productivity were apparent, with weekly output up more than 50 percent.

When incidents aren’t reported, management and workers lose the opportunity to learn from near misses and low-severity events.

A plastics plant in Asia provides another useful example. A plant manager who had just joined the company banned a process for cleaning a critical heat exchanger after seeing how hazardous it was. Operators complained this rule would hurt productivity, which was indeed the case. Convinced that safety and productivity were not incompatible, the manager convened a cross-functional team to solve the problem. The result: a safer, faster, and cheaper cleaning procedure.

Jessica van Zyl
Jessica is the Editor in Chief of Sheqafrica Corporate Services (Pty)Ltd's Media Office and has 17 years experience in Technical Publishing. She worked for a number of small online magazines until 2018 when she became a Legal Researcher at Le Roux Maritz & Partners. Shortly afterwards, she was seconded to SACS as editor of Sheqafrica.co.za as part of her portfolio.