I read a lot of articles about workers getting killed on the job in preventable incidents. They’re always upsetting.

But one of the things that infuriates me most is the all-too-common statement from a company spokesperson that “Safety is our top priority” after a preventable fatality.

Now, I’m not doubting that losing an employee is a devastating experience for any company owner. The remorse is sincere. But if safety was really the company’s “number one priority,” why is the worker dead?

Here for example we have the Oakland-based Shimmick Construction whose employee, Patrick Ricketts was killed earlier this month.

Family, friends mourning death of construction worker killed in Twin Peaks Tunnel

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (KTVU) – Family and friends are mourning the death of a construction worker, killed after he was hit by a steel beam in the Twin Peaks Tunnel in San Francisco on Friday. Loved ones have identified him as 51-year-old Patrick Ricketts.  “Safety is always our number one priority,” said San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority (SFMTA) Deputy Spokeswoman Erica Kato.

And the spokesperson for Shimmick said in a statement, “Safety is core to everything we do….”

If safety was really the company’s “number one priority,” why is the worker dead?

I’m not sure how SFMTA, which didn’t look up Shimick’s record, defines “always,” or how Shimick defines “core,” but it seems that the company has a rather checkered history when it comes to workplace safety according to the San Francisco Examiner:

Public records reviewed Wednesday revealed another case where the contractor under scrutiny after a steel beam fell and killed a worker in a San Francisco Muni tunnel faced fines for serious and willful safety violations.

Yet as the San Francisco Examiner reported Tuesday, the Oakland-based Shimmick Construction told transit officials last November it had not been cited for a “serious and willful violation” in the past decade when it filled out an application to work on the seismic retrofit of the Twin Peaks Tunnel.

Shimmick Construction has been linked to nearly 50 workplace safety violations since 2008, including serious citations for an accident in 2016 in which a forklift driver was crushed in Southern California. The record raises questions as to whether the company followed safety regulations in the Twin Peaks Tunnel.

safety is our top priority
Of course, neither SFMTA nor Shimick are alone in suddenly discovering that safety is their top priority after a worker dies or gets hurt.

TPI Composites hires George W. Bush administration official to help fight OSHA citations

Newton, IA — In June, the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration alleged an array of safety problems at TPI’s wind blade factory in Newton. T.J. Castle, TPI’s senior vice president of North American operations… referred to previous TPI statements that identified workplace safety as a top priority.

Amazon Prime Day created a surge in health and safety complaints from exhausted workers

Great Britain — Amazon Prime Day broke records last week – with more than 100 million products sold – but proved the most controversial deal day to date with strikes breaking out across Europe and health and safety complaints from Amazon UK workers soaring by 209 per cent, according to workplace digital campaigning platform Organise. “Ensuring the safety of associates is our number one priority,” Amazon’s spokesperson said.

Birds Eye workers hospitalized after ammonia leak

Darien, — Authorities haven’t disclosed the extent of injuries to 15 people who had “serious exposure” to an ammonia gas leak Sunday morning inside the Birds Eye food packaging plant, but the 15 were transported to five different area hospitals, a hazardous materials team official on the scene said. Janice Monahan, a representative from Pinnacle Foods and Birds Eye, the two companies affiliated with the Darien plant, said in a statement Sunday afternoon that “the safety of our employees is our top priority and focus right now.”

Construction worker injured at Las Vegas stadium site

Las Vegas, NV — A construction worker was rescued today after suffering an injury three stories off the ground at the Las Vegas stadium site, according to the Clark County Fire Department and the developer.  “The worker was evaluated by the project’s onsite medical personnel and taken to an area hospital for further evaluation,” project developer Mortenson-McCarthy said in a statement. “The worker was alert prior to transport. Safety is our top priority on this and every project.”

Chemical Safety Board Suspects Faulty Valve Led To Superior Refinery Explosion

Superior, WI — The U.S. Chemical Safety Board said Thursday that a malfunctioning valve in an alkylation unit appeared to allow a flammable mixture to form and likely caused the explosion at Husky Energy’s refinery in Superior on April 26.. Husky spokesman Mel Duvall said in an email Thursday that the company will continue to work with the CSB to understand the cause of the explosion. “The safety of our employees and the community remains our top priority and we will continue to work collaboratively with the CSB and other investigating agencies,” wrote Duvall.

Accidents at Amazon: workers left to suffer after warehouse injuries

Guardian investigation reveals numerous cases of Amazon workers being treated in ways that leave them homeless, unable to work or bereft of income after workplace accidents. “Amazon has created over 130,000 jobs in the last year alone and now employs over 560,000 people around the world. Ensuring the safety of these associates is our number one priority,” said Amazon spokesperson Melanie Etches in an email.

OSHA opens probe into man’s death

NEW BREMEN, OH  – The Occupation Safety and Health Administration is investigating a worker’s death after an accident at Crown Equipment Corp. on Monday.

The accident is still under investigation, but preliminary information provided by Crown Equipment indicates that employee Travis Temple, 49, Celina, was struck by a lift truck.

“As with any death, the incident is being investigated by the New Bremen police,” according to department news release. “Employee safety is of the utmost importance to Crown,” a company news release states

What’s the Problem?

So what’s the problem with claiming that safety is your top priority?

Well, first, it generally isn’t true. Survival of the company, production, profit, image, etc. are often higher priorities. And in our economic system, that makes sense. A company needs to make a profit to survive.  But tempering that profit motive is why we have laws and regulations — and enforcement of those laws — to ensure that the quest for higher profits doesn’t result in injury, death, pollution or theft.

Now most business owners don’t actually come out and say that profit is more important than safety. Former Massey Coal owner Don Blankenship was an exception, sending memos to his managers urging them to “run more coal” and not waste their time on safety-related work. Partially based on the evidence contained in those memos, Blankenship, who is attempting to run against Joe Manchin for West Virginia Senator, spent a year in jail related to the deaths of 29 miners who died in an April 2010 explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine.

If you ask the CEOs of companies who take this seriously, my bet is you won’t hear the same old tired line that “safety is a priority.”  — Dr. David Michaels

And then there’s the implication that if safety is really management’s top priority, the fatality or injury must have been because the worker didn’t make safety a priority. Or maybe it was just a “freak accident.”

But the main reason not to claim safety as a top “priority,” is that priorities change depending on what’s happening at the time. True, safety may be a top priority today, but tomorrow there may be other “top” priorities. Just ask Elon Musk.

The fact is that safety shouldn’t just be a priority, it should be integral in the way a company does business.

As former OSHA head David Michaels explained in the Harvard Business Review:

Today and every day in the future, corporate leaders need to reassess what safety means and how their company can achieve it. They need to recognize that safety is a value proposition, that safety management and operational excellence are inextricably linked. If you ask the CEOs of companies who take this seriously, my bet is you won’t hear the same old tired line that “safety is a priority.” They understand that safety is not a priority — it is an essential precondition of their work. It is a fundamental component of their operating culture. Safety, ultimately, is at the core of what they do.

So call me cynical, call me a downer. But I reflexively shudder whenever I hear the words “Safety is our top priority.” Better to just express your sorrow and regret, and recommit yourself to learning the lessons and taking whatever measures are necessary to make sure that your safety system actually ensures that all of your other employees will come home alive and healthy at the end of the shift.


Coming next in the series of Things that Drive Me Crazy: Employers who call their employees “team members.”

5 thoughts on ““Safety Is Our Top Priority””
  1. Thanks for the comments and linking disparate stories, Jordan. The phrase about “top priority” is an easy way to say that an employer did their bit, the worker didn’t. And the “thoughts and prayers” — like those for victims of people using guns — are not preventive action that changes anything.

    As you know, my frustration is that even when “safety is our top priority”, you can bet that health is largely ignored, especially chronic effects. Yet the law says employers are responsible for safety AND health. Whether it’s safety or health, the top priority far too often is profit and/or getting the job done without too many expenses.

    We really have to figure out a way to make the bigger picture you describe more visible to more people.

  2. Thanks, Jordan for shining a light on this. As an OSH educator and long-time practitioner in OSH, I teach my students that the slogan of safety being a top priority is not something that should be used. I heard years ago from E. Scott Geller that when you call safety a priority, the commitment to safety isn’t there by top management, because priorities get shifted and rearranged regularly when something else (production, quality, cost) become a higher priority. Geller states, and how I instruct my students, is that a company that is committed to improving workplace safety views the safety of their workers as a value, not a priority. Doing a task safely becomes just how they work. Granted there are few companies that have safety as a value, but I tell my students that is what they should strive for in the organizations they become a part of in their careers.

  3. I agree; great column about the corporate excuses

    mark gruenberg
    press associates union news service

  4. Oh, it is so hard for a company to get away from that phrase. It is so deeply burnt into the collective and individual brains. And it is so teeth-clenchingly (is that actually a word?) frustrating when once again production takes over. I see procrastination and complacency and every excuse in the world from certain supervisors and what irks me so much is that there is no accountability. Oh wait, yes there is accountability – when it comes to the regular workers and employees, but not when supervisors or plant managers or engineers fail to do their job, i.e. making sure that identified hazards are being taken care of promptly.

  5. I know plenty of people who use that phrase who are zealots of safety and I am not about to insult them by engaging in petty philosophical discussions about word choice. I have experienced more than one safety professional pass judgment upon people for saying such things who didn’t know the first thing about the the person who said it. After 30 years in the safety field, I have grown tired of the cynicism and holier-than-thou attitude so prevalent. Companies don’t have values, people do. I have rarely met a person who did not value safety. What we mistake for an uncaring attitude is often the struggle to work within a system that makes it difficult to operate with integrity. And it is becoming increasingly more difficult. And many of those individuals we love to point fingers at for saying “Safety is our top priority” understand the hypocrisy and loathe it. And here we are on the sideline jeering them. And that is why the safety profession still struggles with acceptance. They are people struggling to do the right thing, just like you and I. I’ve come to realize I am the last person in the world to lecture someone about safety values. I would be a tremendous hypocrite to do so. I am a flawed individual, just like them. I’ve made a point to discontinue whining about how companies don’t care, because it gets us nowhere. Compassion and empathy for others, even those who dare to say “Safety is our top priority,” will move us closer to aligning values. We’ve been trying the arrogant, preachy route for decades, and look where it has gotten us. Maybe the fact that we are still called the “safety guy” by some says a bit about our failure to ingratiate ourselves.

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