October 17, 2016 | Joe Geng |

Fascinating Habits of Incredibly Safe Employers

Since 1970, the United States workforce has doubled. In that same time, on-the-job fatalities have fallen by 68%.

workers on break drinking coffee

Focusing on improving workplace safety is a driving force behind this change. You might hear it called a safety culture, safety habit, or just plain sense.

This post will be looking at both of these scenarios, with case studies from Alcoa, a world leader in aluminum production, and Anglo American Mining, the world’s largest producer of platinum.


Alcoa, Paul O’Neill, and a Groundbreaking Decision to Focus on Safety

Paul O’Neill was hired in 1987 as CEO of the Aluminum Company of America — or Alcoa.

O’Neill was taking over a business that was in trouble.

As Charles Duhigg explains it in his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business:

“In the past year… Alcoa’s management had made misstep after misstep, unwisely trying to expand into new product lines while competitors stole customers and profits away.”

Investors and stock analysts had gathered in a ballroom of a Manhattan hotel, eager to hear how O’Neill would turn things around for the company.

When O’Neill approached the podium to explain his plan to the investors, his first words:


“I want to talk to you about worker safety.”

“Every year,” he continued, “numerous Alcoa workers are injured so badly that they miss a day of work. Our safety record is better than the general American workforce, especially considering that our employees work with metals that are 1500 degrees and machines that can rip a man’s arm off. But it’s not good enough. I intend to make Alcoa the safest company in America.”

aluminum processing


“I intend to go for zero injuries” – Paul O’Neill

The Wall Street investors were not impressed.

If you want to understand how Alcoa is doing, you need to look at our workplace safety figures. If we bring safety rates down… it will be because the individuals at this company have agreed to creating a habit of excellence. Safety will be an indicator that we’re making profess in changing our habits across the entire institution. That’s how we should be judged.”


How Paul O’Neill Achieved Buy-In From Alcoa:

Part of O’Neill’s strategy relied on uniting parties with different beliefs.

He knew he had to unite unions and executives, so he went to basics.

As Duhigg writes, “everyone deserves to leave work as safely as they arrive, right? You shouldn’t be scared that feeding your family is going to kill you. That’s what I decided to focus on: changing everyone’s safety habits.”

“I knew I had to transform Alcoa. But you can’t order people to change. That’s not how the brain works. I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.”

Seeing O’Neill’s uncompromising vision on creating an incredibly safe company, no one argued with O’Neill about worker safety.

“Unions had been fighting for better safety rules for years,” Duhigg writes. “Managers didn’t want to argue it, either, since injuries meant lost productivity and low morale.”


O’Neill Looked for the “Why” Behind Injuries

To understand why injuries happened, he studied the issues in the manufacturing process.

To understand this, he hired people to educate workers on quality control and efficient work processes.

O’Neill’s underlying principle was “correct work is safer work.”

O’Neill essentially implemented The Hierarchy of Safety Controls. Eliminating and substituting hazards that risked the lives of his workers.


Accidents Would Be Reported in 24 Hours:

O’Neill required unit presidents to report accidents to him within 24 hours. They also had to provide a plan to prevent similar injuries in the future.

The trickledown effect was that as employees felt empowered to report injuries and near-misses, they also began to share ideas for improving productivity.

Within a year of O’Neill’s initial speech, profits hit a record high. When O’Neill retired in 2000, the company’s annual net income was 5x larger than before he arrived, and market capital rose by $27 billion.

The solution wasn’t found overnight, it took time and it took teamwork. But it started with one decision that everyone deserved to leave work as safely as they arrived.


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Between 2011 and 2014 the utilities industry had an average of 297.5 hand injuries per year. Mining had an average 1,247.5 hand injuries per year.

electrician climbing hydro pole utilities sector


Safety Perspectives in Utilities & Mining:

Utilities is an example of an industry that developed safety habits to prevent injuries.

It’s had a long history of enforcing high standards of workplace safety due to the nature of the work and the hazards employees face with their environment and equipment.

Alcoa had a respectable safety rating before O’Neill came aboard. Mining, rather, has carried well-documented risks since the 1600s.


How Anglo American Mining Overhauled Its Safety Habits

In her 2014 Harvard Business Review article, Cynthia Carroll, CEO of Anglo American (an international mining company) stated that the company had suffered 200 fatalities over the previous five years.

“Some company veterans insisted that deaths were inevitable at such a large mining company,” she writes, “because mining is simply a dangerous job.”

Nearly a death a week for five years was written off as a cost of doing business.

Carroll didn’t accept this as a reasonable explanation and began visiting Anglo American plants around the world.

miners wearing hi viz ppe in mine

She shut down the world’s largest platinum mine, located in Rustenburg, South Africa and overhaul the company’s safety procedures with a top-to-bottom audit of processes and infrastructure.

This was followed up with a complete retraining of the Rustenburg workforce.

It was a first in the mining industry and it would cost millions. Executives and managers at the mine who did not support the decision to focus on safety were replaced.


Open a Dialogue to Improve Safety:

Once the mine was back online, Carroll called the National Union of Mineworkers and the Department of Mineral Resources.

Much like at Alcoa, Anglo American had to start the conversation. They talked openly about death tolls, they toured mine on four continents, studied global best practices in safety and visited industrial operations in non-mining sectors.

“In 2011, 17 employees lost their lives at Anglo American operations, compared with 44 in 2006, the year before [her] arrival, — a reduction of 62%,” Carroll wrote. “Time lost owing to injuries is down by more than 50%. This has had a positive effect throughout the industry: Fatalities in South African mining as a whole have declined by about 25%.”

The results aren’t perfect, far from it. But it’s a start.


How to Encourage Safety Habits in Your Workplace

Creating safety habits that work starts from the top down. The workers who are most at risk need to know that higher ups value them and worry about their safety.

Above all, O’Neill and Carroll made it clear that they would not compromise worker safety for higher profits. As the message spread and managers who preached it were promoted, safety and productivity improved.


In a talk O’Neill gave, he outlined his ethos.

“In an organization that has the potential for greatness, it’s possible for every person in that company to say yes to three questions without reservations:”

  • Are you treated with dignity and respect every day, by everyone that you encounter?
  • Are you given the tools — emotional and physical — you need so that you can make a contribution that gives meaning to your life?
  • Do you get recognized for what you do?

Make it clear that you respect your staff, that they have the tools to succeed and that they’re recognized for their accomplishments. Do that and positive changes will happen.


A workplace injury can have devastating consequences for a worker and their family.

Discover how the right PPE can make a world of difference.


Joe Geng
About Joe Geng
Vice President of Superior Glove