Productivity and Safety – is there a conflict? This question was raised lately when I completed one-on-one sessions with students in my introductory course “The People Analytics Journey“. The goal of these sessions was to assist students to transform the course materials into an actual analytical project in their organizations. Interestingly, among various business challenges that students raised, Safety was a common concern.
Who owns safety?
Reducing accidents and injuries is a business goal, not an HR goal. In many Israeli organizations, the responsibility for this domain belongs to a safety officer. Therefore, when People Analytics leaders make a hypothesis about employee behaviors and safety outcomes, they must partner with a colleague outside the HR department. But monitoring and changing employee behaviors that contribute to safety is not the entire issue. In some instances, while promoting safety, organizations might unseeingly push their employees to unsafety behavior. A partnership solely with the safety officer will not be sufficient to explore such complex cases.
How an organization pushes its employees to unsafety behavior? Sometimes managers set certain goals that might indirectly encourage the employees to act unsafely or to cut corners with respect to safety procedures. In some organizations, one may find a contradiction between the formal instructions and the way things are done, aka, company culture. To spot such contradictions, I developed many years ago a research tool for organizational safety climate.
Accidents and injuries reduce productivity. However, in the run towards productivity people might forget that. In my safety climate surveys, I offered the management some data and insights about attitudes and behaviors that imply inconsistency between declared procedures and actual expectations of managers. Safety instructions and measures are obviously not enough when the goal of productivity justifies the means of unsafe behavior.
Productivity vs Safety
The most productive organizations are not necessarily the safest ones. Take Amazon for example. This organization uses smart technology to track warehouse worker productivity, i.e., to automatically measure processing times and breaks and generate warnings. Such a tool ensures, efficiently and objectively, that the work gets done. The idea of treating people in such a way may be uncomfortable, to say the least. But if you think about it more deeply, when an employee might be fired due to insufficient productivity, would he cut corners or neglect personal health to gain the expected standards? There are pieces of evidence for injuries related to ruthless quotas in Amazon’s warehouses. The company’s unrelenting surveillance pushed its workers so hard that while hitting their targets, the rate of serious injuries among them was more than double the average for the warehousing industry in the USA.
A delicate balance
This example, based only on the media, is not a statement for or against Amazon. Moreover, my purpose is not to lead you to take a side but to encourage your critical thinking, and hopefully to help executives and HR leaders to take a closer look at practices and consequences.
In competitive environments the importance of productivity raises. But you don’t want to sacrifice safety. So what if productivity tracking could be leveraged to also offer employees safety nudges? Would employees feel differently if tracking them serves their health and well-being? Could such automation offer an intervention that handles the inconsistency between formal safety instruction and actual expectations from employees?
There is a delicate balance that HR professionals must keep in helping business leaders achieve their goals while protecting the interests of employees. Perhaps we need a tool that diminishes the conflict between productivity and safety.