Research finds safety and operations can enhance each other

Safety and operations can be mutually beneficial, suggests a joint study led by scientists from the Institute for Work & Health and York University.

Published: February 12, 2013

In business operations, success is associated with efficiency, productivity and profits; in the safety world, it is associated with occupational injury and illness prevention. Although these two fields—operations and safety—have separately developed into mature areas of management practice, a research team consisting of scientists from the Institute for Work & Health (IWH), York University’s Schulich School of Business and other universities has found that they are not mutually exclusive.

Indeed, when operations and systems are integrated, both systems seem to do better. This is the key finding to date from this research, which set out three years ago to answer a provocative question: Is safe production an oxymoron?

We found that firms integrating safety and operations are building a successful business model for both realms, says Dr. Mark Pagell, the project’s principal investigator (formerly at York, now at Ireland’s University College Dublin). These firms are better performers on both fronts.

Researchers were motivated to undertake this joint study by an unexpected void in the literature. There were very few good quality studies on the financial merits of investing in health and safety, says IWH Scientist Dr. Emile Tompa, who led the IWH arm of the study. We were very surprised because in almost every conversation about investing in safety programs, particularly with employers, these questions come up: What will it cost to ensure safety in the workplace? What are the returns on this kind of investment?

Two separate workplace cultures revealed

The first stage of this research involved interviews with 10 companies in the manufacturing and transportation sectors. At each facility, the researchers collected information on operational and human resources practices, the workplace culture, safety practices and operations outcomes from the following parties: operations manager, human resources manager, safety manager, a front-line supervisor (with direct reports on the shop floor)and, in unionized plants, a union rep.

Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) supplied the researchers with a decade of claims data about each facility. This included the number of injuries (no-lost-time and lost-time incidents), number of days on benefits and insurance costs.  

The case studies revealed two distinct workplace cultures:

  1. a culture supportive of safe operations, which was participatory, had a prevention focus, was committed to safety and was disciplined in how work was done; and
  2. a day-to-day operations culture that was not committed to safety, was not disciplined, had a reactive focus and was not participatory.

Safety was given short shrift in the day-to-day operations culture, the case studies revealed. Some companies were focusing on putting out the fires to reach short-term targets rather than doing long-term planning with a more strategic approach, says Pagell. Conversely, the companies with cultures supportive of safe operations excelled in both safety and operations.

Workplace application implied

Seeking to confirm these findings, the researchers are pushing further. Stage two of their investigation, still unfolding, involves a survey of 200 manufacturing plants in which health and safety and operational managers are being asked about their plant’s health and safety and operational practices.

The larger scale survey of 200, in conjunction with the WSIB data, will give us a very rich data set, says Tompa. It will allow us to confirm (or not) the positive connection between good safety and operations practices in terms of outcomes in both domains.

If the second stage of this research confirms the findings of the first, then having distinct and separate health and safety and operational lines of authority and reporting will actually turn out to be counter-productive to both targets, says Pagell. If this is the case, and firms really want to do well in the long-run and be a leader in their field, they will want to think of safety as everyone’s responsibility, not the sole responsibility of the safety function.

Tompa suggests that incentives could be designed for companies to focus on both safety and operations concurrently. When conditions are arranged for workers to think about safe practices alongside operational priorities, then safety and operations are truly integrated, says Tompa.  If you bring safety and operations together under one umbrella as a way of doing business, the apparent trade-offs are not present. It’s not win-lose; it’s win-win.

Five papers have evolved from this research to date, one of which has been submitted to Safety Science. For more information, see the slidecast (slides and audio) of Pagell’s related plenary: