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Principle Number One: Safety First

This is the first in a series of six columns exploring traditional principles of safety. – Ed.

Most can agree that the typical box is made up of six panels – top, bottom and four sides. That same structure can be applied to the figurative box often referenced when one is advised to “think outside of the box.”

My good friend, veteran safety professional Carl Metzgar, employed this figurative box once to describe six traditionally ascribed “principles” of safety that he suggested have trapped us within the confines of that proverbial box and perhaps, at the same time, suppressed important safety innovation. So, within the spirit of Carl’s lead and with my own twist, I offer my definition of that box (one panel at a time) over the next six months.

Safety First
Safety First is a fine and noble aspiration that is difficult to implement. It sounds so good that it’s hard to refute. Similarly, some proclaim that safety is the “highest priority” or “first priority.”

You may have heard: “Our employees’ safety is our first priority.” One cannot argue with the purity of the intent. The problem is that it’s very difficult to apply consistently. Priorities change rather frequently. When another issue (production, maintenance, quality, environment, payroll, whatever) suddenly needs immediate attention, where then does safety fall in the list of priorities? If safety is not first in practice (always), the impact is lost in hypocrisy.

Recognizing this, many organizations have adopted a variation on the theme declaring safety as a core value. This approach has several advantages over the safety first philosophy:

  • Safety is stated as a core value (meaning that it is one of several core values) with no particular ranking.
  • Values have more staying power than priorities. While they do shift, they do not shift easily.
  • It recognizes that safety is not “stand-alone.” As a value, it is applied equally (together with other core values) to all we do.


Still there is that issue about consistent application. If organizational leaders assert that safety is a core value, they must then be prepared to apply that value consistently – even under duress. That commitment must also be translated through the various layers of the organization – to the trenches where the real application of values is demonstrated daily.

One of the advantages of recognizing safety as a value is that values are relatively constant. As a result, one would then expect that significant time and effort might be required to transform a safety as a priority culture to a safety as a core value culture.

One other consideration is that while we may all declare (and practice) safety as a core value, we may have different perceptions of what is safe. My determination to proceed under certain circumstances may very well represent an unacceptable risk to another. One of us is a cowboy and the other (well let’s just say, is a bit overly cautious). There must be some organizational guidance.

I will suggest one more conceptual approach to safety that is perhaps even a bit more out of the box. A foundation is a solid base that a structure can be built upon. It could be a house, an office, a factory or an organization. A foundation has stability and integrity. It provides consistent (unbending) support for the structure and systems built upon it (often undetected).

Safety, as one of the foundational components of an organization, can be described as being integral to principles (even values) that define the success of the organization. As a foundational component, safety can be defined in broad terms that encompass expectations for personal performance, working conditions, communication and social interaction. Maybe, it just might be a good start.

It’s worth thinking about – out of the box.