The Case for making Safety a Priority in Business

In my interactions with companies I often hear the people saying things like:

“If only my management really supported safety we would really get a lot better. If they say safety is number 1, then why don’t they behave that way?”

The people at the top probably know that they can have big losses, lawsuits and bad publicity if there is a serious injury, toxic chemical release or explosion. They may even wake up at night thinking about these things.

Yet safety is not their core business. They have revenue and earnings goals looming over them. Quality and production problems may be pressing them. In this environment safety is a pain in the neck, intruding at the wrong times. It is seen as more costs.

I think that we may have the safety messages backward. Rather than feeling under-valued and not supported by management around safety, let’s turn the picture around so that excellence in safety performance is the path to total business excellence performance and enhanced profits.

Everyone can play an important part in this. We achieve safety excellence by shifting the culture. We share all information, build trust and interdependence and help everyone see how they are important to the success of the entire business. We engage each other, listen for all the ideas, help people to solve the problems and challenges that come up. We ask for help because none of us can do this alone.

As the culture shifts, injury and incident rates drop thus saving a lot of money directly, people feel more valued and interested in the total business. As the credibility around safety is built, people begin to see other things that can be improved to help the business and they do them.

As we shifted the safety culture at the DuPont Belle, WV plant where I was the plant manager in the 1980s and 1990s the injury rates dropped by about 97% and earnings went up about 300%. People felt a lot better about things and focused at really making improvements. Not only did we save money with fewer injuries and incidents, people went after things like lowering the demurrage rates (the rent we pay owners of tank trucks after their deliveries were made and the trucks were left on the plant) by 75% in just a few months. We also learned how to change our process control systems from pneumatic systems to electronic systems without running parallel—thus cutting the time and costs for the conversions by about 50%. We did this 16 times without failure.

As the culture shifted towards excellence everything else shifted towards excellence. When we turn the story around from safety being a pain in the neck to becoming the leading edge for shifting the total organization to high performance and excellence, then safety becomes a focal point for the organizational change efforts.

About 80% of the large-scale organizational change efforts fail to produce the desired results and are not sustained. Rather than beginning with a large-scale change effort, we can begin with a smaller effort, focused at safety and then spread the effort as we learn how to do it and gain everyone’s support. Success is much more likely and it is sustainable. At Belle the culture shifted! One measure of that was the injury rates dropped to world-class levels and were sustained for 16 years. Everything else we measured also showed significant improvement.

Let’s shift the safety message from being a pain in the neck to becoming the leading wave for total organizational excellence!

About Richard N. Knowles

© Richard N. Knowles and Safety Sage Blog, 2014. You may use this article on your blog, website or in your newsletter or magazine, provided that full and clear credit is given to author, Richard N Knowles, Ph.D of Safety Excellence for Business with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


  1. Jeff Washburn says:

    I was quite interested to read many of your blog entries, but this one the most. What you did at DuPont Belle in the ’80s and ’90s was my experience in the mid to late ’80s – right down to the marked change in safety stats. It sounds like we were part of creating strong safety cultures, which may be quite rare. I see a pattern developing, and that pattern is (for now) safety cultures developed really before it became a movement.

    I recently read a book by Michael Agar, The Lively Science: Remodeling Human Social Research ( With the thesis of this book, I found an explanation for the pattern. Mike divides the soft sciences into Behavioral Social Science (BSS) and Human Social Research (HSR). Highly controlled experiments following the scientific method characterizes BSS. HSR projects develop more like preparing cor a court case. Diane Vaughan’s, The Challenger Launch Decision, provides an excellent example of HSR. The shortcoming of BSS is that findings lose ecological validity when application is made in the real world. HSR encounters the real world, and must be highly improvisational. The Safety Culture Assessment (SCA) is classic BSS, and it uses a classic BSS device, the survey tool.

    I believe what we accomplished was applied HSR, and it happened before BSS got its hooks into the business. BSS findings in the typical SCA are ecologic validity challenged. The use of those findings results in ecological validity challenged improvement actions. The process I would advocate is: use an HSR implementation approach, and then use the BSS SCA like a pressure gauge. Use the SCA findings to inform your HSR approach.

    BTW, Rosa sent me your way.

    • Richard N. Knowles says:

      Hi Jeff,

      I found your comments very interesting. When you did you work with whom were you working and where?

      I think that your HSR comments are quite good although I did not approach it this way, based on my limited understanding. I’ve never had much interest in behaviorial based safety. I came at this along two routes that changed my thinking and guided me through this and subsequent work.

      I was studying John Bennett’s Systematics and getting introduced to chaos theory, complex adaptive systems, comple responsive processes and complexity theory. I discovered several things. One was that Bennett’s Systematics gave me a language for working in complexity. The second thing was, building off Bennett, that I discovered the Process Enneagram(C) which seems to be the missing link between complexity theory and practical application. The Process Enneagram is the only tool I know of that helps people solve complex problems, build the social connections that they need to do the work and creates the emotional energy and commitment to do the work quickly and well.

      This way of leading I call Self-Organizing Leadership(TM). There is more on the Process Enneagram on my web site

      Where are you now and where are you working?

      Thanks for your comments.

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