Safety Comes Third: A Contrarian Approach to Prioritizing Workplace Values

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Several years ago I was at an Operational Excellence Conference here in Frankfurt.  As with most talks, the speaker started by introducing the company he worked for and what it did.  He then proceeded to list the companies values, of which there were five or so.

The last value on the list was “Safety” to which he stated; “And at ACME Co, safety comes first.

I asked; “If safety comes first, why is it listed last?”

He was rendered speechless.  And I felt bad for him, but I wasn’t really sorry.

In fact, it might have been a truly honest moment at the conference because many companies talk a big game about safety, but rarely is it the reality.

For example, I have a client that mines and refines minerals.  They talk about safety coming first, but the reality is that they want their machines running all the time with production that is reliably consistent; God help the person who hits the “red button”.  That person will not be celebrated, but rather held to account for their action which ruined any chance of hitting the KPI.

Another example is that of a client I had in Russia (pre-Crimea) that was in the paper and pulp industry.  There was a conveyor that ran about 20 miles per hour and carried material into a vat of nastiness.  If someone fell into that vat; there was no rescue, only recovery.  Yet I would routinely see maintenance workers working on the conveyor by straddling it while it was running; just ten feet or so from the vat.  Of course, they had safety gear.  But they did not wear it because they wanted to look macho.

Let’s talk about machismo and reality

In the chaotic realm of workplace philosophies, where “Safety First” has long been the unassailable mantra, there emerges a rebel with a cause – or perhaps, a rebel without one.  Meet the advocate of “Safety Comes Third” – an individual whose sense of humor is as sharp as their disregard for conventional wisdom.  In a world where seriousness reigns supreme, this audacious concept brings a breath of fresh air, albeit one laden with conflicting notions.

Imagine a workplace where the water cooler discussions are not about accident prevention, but instead, about the quirky mishaps that make everyone laugh.  Picture a scenario where the safety manual gathers dust while employees engage in lighthearted banter about their near-miss encounters with office and workplace apparatus.  It is a workplace where safety briefings are replaced by comedy sketches, and hazard signs are adorned with witty puns, creating an environment where laughter is the best safety measure.

On one hand, proponents of “Safety Comes Third” argue that a workplace where safety is not the primary concern fosters a sense of camaraderie.  When employees bond over shared experiences of slipping on banana peels or narrowly avoiding toppling file cabinets, it creates a unique sense of unity. After all, nothing brings people together like a good laugh at the expense of gravity’s pull or misplaced coffee mugs.

The Germans have a perfect word for it, “Schadenfreude”.  It means to take pleasure in the misfortune of others.

However, the conflicting nature of this philosophy cannot be overlooked.  Critics raise their eyebrows, questioning the sanity of those who dare to suggest that safety should take a backseat to anything. They point to the potential hazards that might arise in such a carefree environment, where employees are more focused on crafting witty retorts than adhering to safety protocols.  The clash between the serious advocates of “Safety First” and the whimsical supporters of “Safety Comes Third” creates a humorous tension, akin to a comedic standoff in a workplace sitcom; or almost any episode of “The Office”.

In this humorous tug-of-war, employees find themselves torn between the gravity of safety concerns and the levity of a workplace that encourages enjoying one’s work; with laughter being a part of that.  Meetings are peppered with contradictory statements, where supervisors sternly remind their teams about the importance of safety, only to be met with mischievous smirks from the “Safety Comes Third” advocates, who believe that a workplace with less emphasis on safety might just be the key to unlocking creativity and innovation.

In this conflicting landscape of safety priorities, one thing is certain: the proponents of “Safety Comes Third” are not advocating for recklessness; or are they?  Instead, promoting a workplace culture where humor is embraced, connections are strengthened, and safety is not just a rule to follow but a source of amusement.  Whether it is a brilliant stroke of comic genius or a recipe for disaster, one cannot deny the audacity and humor that this concept injects into the otherwise serious realm of workplace safety.  So, while the debate rages on, one cannot help but chuckle at the irony of it all – a workplace where safety, quite literally, comes third.

My introduction to “Safety Comes Third

I was recently introduced to the concept of “Safety Comes Third” by someone who was in the United States Army.  When she mentioned it, and that it was truly a thing in the Army, I did a physical and mental double-take.

She went on to explain that in the United States Army – where discipline, teamwork, and precision are the bedrock of operational success – the phrase “Safety Comes Third” takes on a unique and profound meaning.  Amidst the rigorous training, strategic planning, and high-stakes missions, the Army acknowledges that safety, while undeniably crucial, is not the sole determining factor for mission accomplishment.  The Army values a holistic approach, placing emphasis first on mission readiness and execution, followed by unit cohesion and effectiveness.  When soldiers are thoroughly prepared, mentally sharp, and cohesive as a team, they naturally become more attuned to safety protocols, enhancing their ability to mitigate risks effectively.

This unconventional perspective challenges the traditional hierarchy of workplace values, highlighting the Army’s commitment to excellence in all aspects of military service.  By placing safety third, the Army cultivates a culture of responsibility and vigilance, where soldiers are not just passive recipients of safety guidelines but actively engaged participants in ensuring their well-being and the welfare of their comrades.  In this introductory exploration of the concept within the context of the U.S. Army, we delve into the nuanced approach that underscores the importance of prioritizing mission success and unit effectiveness, ultimately fostering a safer and more resilient force in the face of diverse challenges.

At least that is the theory.

What about in civilian life?

In the fast-paced world in which we live, safety is often touted as the paramount concern in any workplace.  From construction sites to corporate offices, the mantra of “safety first” is ingrained in our minds.  It makes sense, doesn’t it?  After all, who would not want to work in an environment where their well-being is the top priority?

But what if I told you that the reality is that safety comes third?  That’s right, third.  In the grand scheme of things, safety might not be the ultimate guiding principle for every organization.  This contrarian viewpoint challenges the conventional wisdom and urges us to reconsider our approach to workplace values; and perhaps lines-up to the reality.

So, for your consideration, I offer the following;

The Hierarchy of Workplace Values: A Paradigm Shift

Traditionally, safety has been upheld as the cornerstone of a productive and ethical workplace.  It is true that ensuring the safety of employees is crucial, but what if we consider the broader picture?  What if we reevaluate the hierarchy of workplace values and place other factors at the forefront?

What if the paradigm shifts to (or already is in reality) Productivity, Creativity, and Safety?

In this unconventional approach, productivity takes the lead.  A productive workplace fosters innovation, growth, and financial stability.  When employees are motivated, engaged, and driven to excel, they contribute significantly to the organization’s success.  Prioritizing productivity encourages employees to embrace challenges and find creative solutions to problems.

Following closely behind productivity is creativity.  Creativity fuels innovation and drives businesses forward.  Encouraging a creative environment allows employees to think outside the box, explore new ideas, and develop groundbreaking solutions.  Creativity is the lifeblood of progress, making it a fundamental value in any workplace.

Now, where does safety fit into this paradigm?  By placing safety third, we are not downplaying its importance.  Instead, we are acknowledging that a productive and creative workforce is inherently attuned to the significance of safety.  Employees who are motivated and engaged naturally look out for one another, making safety a collective responsibility rather than a top-down mandate.

That is one theory, perhaps.

Fostering a Culture of Responsibility

When safety is demoted from its top position, a culture of responsibility emerges.  In a workplace where productivity and creativity take precedence, employees are encouraged to take ownership of their actions and decisions.  This sense of responsibility empowers individuals to prioritize safety organically, without the need for stringent rules and regulations.

In such a culture, employees are not merely following safety protocols because they are obligated to do so; they are actively aware of their surroundings and potential hazards.  They understand the impact of their actions on themselves and their colleagues.  This heightened awareness promotes a safer environment without the need for constant surveillance or micromanagement.

Balancing Risk and Innovation

Innovation often involves taking risks.  It requires stepping outside the comfort zone and exploring uncharted territories.  While safety is essential, an excessive focus on it can stifle creativity and hinder progress.  By acknowledging that safety comes third, organizations strike a delicate balance between fostering innovation and ensuring the well-being of their employees.

Encouraging employees to embrace calculated risks can lead to groundbreaking discoveries and advancements. When employees feel supported in their endeavors, they are more likely to push boundaries and explore innovative solutions to complex problems.  This balance between risk and safety is crucial for the long-term success of any organization.

Empowering Employees: The Key to a Sustainable Future

Placing safety third is not about neglecting the well-being of employees.  It is about empowering them to be proactive and vigilant.  When employees are trusted to prioritize their safety within a framework of productivity and creativity, they become active participants in creating a secure work environment.

Empowered employees are more likely to speak up when they notice potential hazards or unsafe practices.  They actively contribute to the development of safety protocols and collaborate with management to enhance workplace safety measures.  This sense of ownership fosters a strong sense of community and camaraderie among employees, creating a supportive workplace culture.

Conclusion: Rethinking Workplace Values for a Better, Brighter, and yes, a Safer Future

In challenging the traditional notion that safety comes first, we open the door to a new perspective on workplace values.  By prioritizing productivity, creativity, and responsibility, organizations can create a work environment where employees thrive, innovation flourishes, and safety is a natural outcome.

I was at a conference on Health and Safety some decades ago.  A representative of the automotive safety council came to speak, and his talk was fascinating.

He postulated that automobiles were becoming so safe that drivers and passengers started to believe the marketing hype and were becoming more reckless and more complacent because of all the safety features that existed and how the industry touted how safe their vehicles were.

There were safety belts, safety glass, air bags, bodies that were designed to crumple in an accident, roofs what would protect against roll-overs, and industry watch-dogs that pounced on anything that could be a risk to anyone inside or outside the vehicle.

And yet, accidents were occurring, and people were still getting injured and killed in numbers that, in his opinion, defied the expectation.

His solution?  Replace the airbags with spikes.  If the vehicle becomes involved in an accident, instead of protective airbags being deployed to protect the occupants, spikes would be deployed that would impale them instead.

Would driving behaviors change? Would fatalities and injuries be reduced? Certainly.

Embracing this contrarian approach requires a shift in mindset and a willingness to trust employees to prioritize their well-being.  It is about fostering a culture of mutual respect, trust, and collaboration. When employees are empowered and motivated, they become the driving force behind a successful, safe, and sustainable workplace.

So, the next time you hear someone say, “Safety first,” consider the possibility that safety, while undeniably important, can be a natural outcome of a productive, creative, and responsible workplace.  In this brave new world of work, safety comes third, and in doing so, we may pave the way for a brighter, more innovative – and yes, safe – future.

About the Author

Joseph Paris

Paris is an international expert in the field of Operational Excellence, organizational design, strategy design and deployment, and helping companies become high-performance organizations.  His vehicles for change include being the Founder of; the XONITEK Group of Companies; the Operational Excellence Society; and the Readiness Institute.

He is a sought-after speaker and lecturer and his book, “State of Readiness” has been endorsed by senior leaders at some of the most respected companies in the world.

Click here to learn more about Joseph Paris or connect with him on LinkedIn.

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