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The Value of Executive Buy-In in Promoting Workplace Safety

Kathryn Carlson /

One of our clients recently reversed a pattern of workplace incidents and established a true safety culture. That’s good news, but not really noteworthy unto itself. KPA has helped countless organizations improve safety, lower risk, and save money.

What’s interesting in this case is how they did it.

The organization we’re talking about is an automotive dealership. Like many environment, health, and safety professionals, the service manager who contacted KPA struggled to “sell” the dealer’s leadership on EHS. There seemed to be no room in the budget for a better safety program. Decision-makers understood how important it was to minimize injuries and illnesses, but the organization was financially strapped as it was, EHS was one of many priorities, and there wasn’t a clear return on investment.

That’s when the safety manager had an idea. Rather than framing the issue in terms of the cost of safety evaluations or even injury rates, he focused exclusively on the cost of absenteeism.

Specifically, he demonstrated the cost of absenteeism in the service bay. For the average dealer, the service bay generates about $20,000 in monthly income. The safety manager explained that the more people who got hurt or sick, the fewer productive workers in that service bay, and the more money the business was losing each month.  

He pulled numbers, presented them to leadership, and said, “this is how many unproductive days we’re having because people are off and not able to work.” The metrics were simple and undeniable. The safety manager told leadership that if the organization could reduce their absentee rate by a certain percentage, a better EHS program would pay for itself.

He was correct. The dealer installed the program, focusing heavily on online training and root cause analysis of frequent accidents. As a result, they were able to significantly lower their absenteeism rate. They got there by reducing the number of safety violations, of course, but it was the cost of diminished productivity that resonated most with the people in charge.

Speaking the Language of the C-Suite

As it turns out, the safety manager actually underestimated the ROI of the new EHS program. Looking at what the dealer was able to save versus the cost of the programs they put in place, the business saw an ROI of approximately 800%—the program paid for itself 8 times over. That’s the kind of number people who control the budget understand.

This case study demonstrates the power of speaking the C-suite’s language. As we found in the 2019 State of the Industry: EHS Program Trends report, poor performing organizations—the ones with higher-than-average injury rates and safety violations—tend to have low levels of executive support for their EHS programs.

It’s not that executives at these organizations don’t care about safety. Frequently, EHS gets neglected because there are other, more pressing and tangible costs that come first.

Moreover, it’s not always just about the money. Even if you have a huge budget for safety, you have multiple moving pieces to track and coordinate—individuals, software, training, and so forth. If there’s no commitment from executive management to acknowledge and support those efforts, it’s exceedingly difficult for the organization to make the jump from poor performer to high performer.

To turn their organizations around, safety professionals need to have a seat at the table. And to gain that seat, they need to be able to speak the language of the rest of the people sitting at the table. Translating incidents into absenteeism rates is one example of how to do that.

What Happens When Non-Safety Leaders Champion EHS

Just as safety professionals need a seat at the executive table, leaders should have a role in safety. High-performing organizations tend to have champions outside of EHS who advocate for and drive the program.

I’ll share another brief story with you. One of our clients—a large company with more than two hundred locations across the US—wanted to make sure their investment in technology paid off. So, their vice president of EHS took it upon himself to track how different locations were performing—which were seeing issues and which were doing the right thing.

The VP decided to use a carrot-and-stick approach. Every morning, he generated reports and publicized each location’s results in company-wide communication. He then conducted outreach to the locations that needed improvement.

He also engaged with the head of the operations to tie safety to other business outcomes. At sales meetings, for instance, managers would discuss recent injury rates and corrective and preventive actions, showing salespeople that the company was looking out for people and could take on even more customers.

The company had the budget and the software in place to improve safety performance, but until there was a champion, it was difficult to move the needle.

Champions don’t have to be executives. They can come from anywhere in the organization. Perhaps it’s the head of manufacturing, who sees the link between safety and efficiency; or the head of marketing, who sees safety as a differentiator worthy of promotion. In any case, when someone beyond the safety team takes the lead, they help others realize that EHS is about more than doing the bare minimum of abiding by regulations.

Don’t Settle for Poor Performance

It’s important to keep in mind that neither of these success stories happened overnight. For many organizations, safety issues are multifaceted and deep-seated. There isn’t one all-embracing solution for transforming a poor-performing EHS program into a high-performing program.

What’s important is that EHS can be turned around. Any organization can break out of the cycle of putting out fires (literally and otherwise) with inadequate tools. Any team and any EHS program can shift from reactive incident management to proactive problem-solving. The key is to find the right solution and win the support of people at the top.

KPA has the software and consulting services you need to sell leadership on safety and improve EHS performance. See how we can help you—contact us for a free demo and consultation.

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