My Thoughts on the ASSE Interview with Paul H O’Neill

A week ago, the American Society of Safety Engineers hosted a Q&A session with Paul O’Neill. He is the former CEO of Alcoa and is recognized as a true safety leader. I would highly recommend seeing the interview if at all possible. It was quite a sobering experience of how easy he made safety leadership sound. There were a few items that really struck me as pertinent.

1) Before taking over as CEO, he asked himself, “what do you want to be remembered for?”

His answer was “safety.” I think of my own life and career and wonder what I will be remembered for. As a safety professional, I hope that people will see me as a strong advocate for worker safety. A few other attributes that come to mind are leadership, compassion, and fairness. I also look around at other managers and leaders and wonder what their answer would be to that same question. If we are truly being honest with ourselves, what would that answer be? What would others say we stand for? There are leaders whose answer would be leadership, profitability, innovation, or productivity. Are we really considering the human factor in these decisions and assuring that we protect the most valuable resource of any organization?

2) If you take care of the non-financial aspects of the business, the financial aspects will be there.

He was specifically talking about people. If you take care of the people in the organization, they will help the company take care of financials, quality, and productivity. This message highly resembles my postings on the Hierarchy of Safety Needs. Until the people of the organization feel their safety need has been fully realized. they will not progress to higher levels that drives true breakthrough skills that progresses the company. This philosophy also strongly resembles Toyota’s systems. As Toyota’s systems continue to be bench-marked, there is one clear idea that resounds: follow good processes, and the results will be achieved. Instead of driving the results, focus on the people and processes. They will help create organization success.

3) All safety issues will be corrected

He actually said that this statement scared his financial team. He stated that he could not expect people to believe in the message of safety if there were limitations to what they were willing to do to make the sites safe. This is definitely a lofty goal, and it did not happen overnight. There were processes and methods in place, but the issues were addressed and organization was transformed.

4) All incidents/injuries can be prevented

There is no such thing as an accident. There are measures that can always be taken to prevent injuries. I also found it interesting that he did not classify injuries as OSHA Recordables. He meant that near misses and first aid cases deserved swift, decisive, and focused attention. A first aid case is still someone who has been hurt on the job. It is not as severe, but it is still a person who has been hurt at work. His vision was not just an OSHA related goal, but one that was people and process focused.

Overall, I enjoyed the interview and found it to be very informative. His methods were not complex or difficult. They were focused on a few key principles that helped revolutionize his organization.

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