How to Make Workplace Safety a Priority

A safety professional wearing a yellow hard hat and holding a tablet
Category: Industry Insights

By Matt Rowley
Posted on

When Paul O’Neill started as the Alcoa CEO in 1987, the aluminum manufacturing giant was in trouble. Several of its recent product launches had failed. Investors wanted to hear how O’Neill planned to turn the company around.

When he gave his first speech, O’Neill didn’t discuss new revenue streams or cost-cutting measures. He chose an unusual topic: worker safety. One investor ran out of the room to tell his top clients to dump Alcoa stock.

"I ordered them to sell their stock immediately, before everyone else in the room started calling their clients and telling them the same thing,” the investor said. “It was literally the worst piece of advice I gave in my entire career."

By the time O’Neill retired, Alcoa’s net income had grown to five times what it was when he started.

Workers missed 1.86 days per 100 employees due to injury in 1987; by 2012, its lost-days rate had dropped to 0.125. The quest to improve worker safety pushed Alcoa to improve its manufacturing processes. It also revealed ways that current processes were creating suboptimal aluminum products. What started as a focus on safety led to better processes, better products and higher profits for Alcoa.

Improving workplace safety isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s a smart investment in the future of any company. Businesses that recognize the importance of safety in the workplace are businesses that succeed. And making safety a priority begins with exceptional health and safety training.

Begin With OSHA Compliance

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has guidelines in place for sanitation, first aid, hazardous materials, ventilation, personal protective equipment, safety exits and more. Although following OSHA requirements is a must for any business, and failing to comply can cost thousands of dollars, reviewing the guidelines is the best place to start any occupational safety and health improvement effort.

OSHA compliance, however, is only the beginning. For instance, in companies with a unionized workforce, safety requirements are often part of worker contracts, and failure to protect workers can lead to litigation and compensatory damages. When a glaring safety issue exists, even if specific laws or regulations don’t cover it, it still exposes businesses to liability. If needed, companies should consider hiring consultants that can identify obstacles to workplace safety and provide remediation steps.

Offer Occupational Safety and Health Training

Hiring occupational safety and health experts to deliver training is a good start, but it’s also important to get the right training that offers the most benefits for company workers. One way to start is with a job hazard analysis, which documents each step of on-the-job tasks and the potential safety issues arising from each task. This analysis identifies the highest-risk activities, so businesses can identify immediate safety training priorities.

Offering these opportunities provides multiple benefits to your company. Not only do you reduce the risk of a serious accident, but comprehensive, ongoing workplace safety training programs can:

  1. Support a culture of safety. When safety is addressed on an ongoing basis – and not just in a single annual training session – it becomes ingrained in the company culture and part of the expectations for every employee.
  2. Increase loyalty. When employees believe that you care about their well-being, they are more likely to be loyal and productive employees.
  3. Improve corporate reputation. Your company’s reputation influences everything from how customers perceive you to your ability to attract top talent. A commitment to worker safety helps support your reputation as a great place to work.
  4. Save money. Safety training helps prevent injuries and absences that increase operating costs. Providing evidence of ongoing safety education may also help reduce the cost of insurance. And, if an accident does occur, providing proof that you took all reasonable steps to prevent the incident can help reduce any penalties that may be levied against you.

Again, training needs to be continuous to be effective. When delivering training, too many businesses sign people up for a seminar, or provide an annual online module to complete, and assume they’ve done their job. According to Safety Works!, a program from the Maine Department of Labor, training needs to take place at several junctures during an individual’s employment:

  1. New employees and those changing jobs should receive a safety briefing and overview of standard safety policies and procedures.
  2. All employees should receive ongoing training in the hazards and safety protocols related to their specific jobs.
  3. Retraining should occur when changing jobs, when an employee has been away from work for an extended time, when safety incidents occur, and when new equipment or procedures are introduced.
  4. As required by industry or federal standards.

To truly lower risk, safety training should be relevant to the job, and workers should have an opportunity to practice and demonstrate their new skills. Lessons should be sequential, matching the order in which employees perform tasks on the job. Training should also be hands-on, giving workers a chance to perform tasks and engage in discussion, both with instructors and with one another. In other words, while watching videos, completing self-paced online courses, and listening to lectures can be a part of the overall safety program, to be truly effective, training should be dynamic and engaging and focused on real-world skills and actions.

When training sessions are over, businesses should ask workers for their feedback to see if they felt the activities were relevant to what they do. Incorporating employee feedback is crucial to making ongoing improvements to training quality. If workers say the training was ineffective — for example, too much classroom lecture and not enough on-the-job activity — then instructors should change the way they design each course so that workers get maximum value from the training.

Make Workplace Safety an Ongoing Priority

Teaching one safety class and assuming workers have all the training they need is a risky proposition. Managers and other leaders should follow up with department heads, foremen and other supervisors to see whether workers are implementing the training they’ve received. If a worker performs a task in an unsafe manner, coaching or retraining should happen immediately. In-the-moment assistance is far more effective than assistance after an injury has occurred.

In fact, supporting a culture of safety means that workers must take ownership of occupational safety and health within their work areas. After all, their lives at stake. Involving employees in the development of safety and health policies and training increases engagement. It also ensures that their training is relevant and addresses the most common issues in that specific work environment. Some businesses form safety committees on sites or within plants, committees run by workers and not by managers. They become resources for their colleagues when it comes to safety issues, and they can also report issues, like poor equipment function, before those issues lead to injuries. Because they’re closest to the actual work, they become valuable eyes and ears when it comes to safety issues.

Giving employees ownership over the health and safety of the work environment also means demanding accountability as well. Safety responsibilities should be a part of every job description, with adherence to safety policies and practices a part of performance reviews. When employees engage in unsafe practices or behaviors, they should be disciplined and retrained if necessary.

By the same token, employees who demonstrate commitment to safety and actively support safety goals should be rewarded. Track key performance indicators related to occupational safety and health, such as injury rates, lost time for injury and illness, and severity of workplaces injuries or illnesses associated with work activities, and communicate the results to the entire staff. Facilities or departments that make notable improvements should receive incentives or awards, including individual recognition for leaders and top performers. If goals aren’t being reached, investigate the causes and look for employee input into issues and changes that can be made to achieve those goals.

Safety Training Do’s and Don’ts in a Nutshell

To support a culture of employee safety and prepare your workers to do their jobs safely, keep the following do’s and don’ts in mind:


  1. Review OSHA requirements for your business, and implement required safety protocols.
  2. Analyze the work environment to identify safety risks and develop plans to address risks.
  3. Set safety-related goals.
  4. Invest in ongoing safety training programs that address workplace-specific risks, best practices and the latest trends.
  5. Retrain employees as required.
  6. Involve employees in safety planning and training to keep them engaged.
  7. Hold employees accountable for safety.
  8. Recognize employees who go above and beyond to support a safe workplace.
  9. Implement a specific injury or illness protocol and a system for reporting incidents.


  1. Rely on a single training session to adequately prepare employees for safety excellence.
  2. Put off correction or retraining. Immediate action is most effective for changing behavior.
  3. Accept the minimum in terms of training, safety equipment and protocols.
  4. Ignore employee input or concerns.
  5. Forget to document all information related to safety, including training, injury statistics and corrective actions.
  6. Allow retaliation for the reporting of safety concerns or accidents.

Safety: Putting People First

Many businesses discover, like Alcoa did, that the quest to improve safety leads to better production outcomes and lower costs related to injury and illness. But most importantly, a safety focus communicates something important to workers: It shows their employers value their health and well-being.

Columbia Southern University offers associate, bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in occupational safety and health, as well as a bachelor’s in environmental management. CSU’s online bachelor’s and master’s programs in occupational safety and health are touted by the Board of Certified Safety Professionals as Graduate Safety Practitioner® Qualified Academic Programs.

For more information, visit

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