Manage productivity and safety together and you'll do better in both, research shows

Dec 07, 2015

Manage productivityWitnessing the aftermath of the death of a co-worker while working years ago as a summer student immediately drove home the value of safety for David Johnston, now an associate professor of operations management and information systems at York University's Schulich School of Business. As he puts it, "On a personal level I know what it means to workers when a really bad thing happens in the workplace." Through extensive research, Johnston has also learned what it can mean to a business: "companies that are really good at safety are usually really good at production, and companies that are really bad at safety are really bad at production."

Makes sense, but Johnston and his colleagues at Schulich School of Business, Ivey School of Business, Oregon State University and the Institute for Work & Health are the first to provide strong evidence that this is true in practice for a broad cross section of manufacturers. Their findings appear in four peer-reviewed papers, three of which were published in the top production operations and safety journals. These papers were written less for safety managers and more for operations managers.*

"This research offers tremendous value in driving home the message that safety is essential to organizational success," says Andrew Harkness, WSPS' strategy advisor, organizational health initiatives. "People grasp this intuitively, but the results can help managers and senior leadership take safety and productivity to higher levels."

How Johnston and his colleagues conducted their research

Johnston was well aware of research showing that managing workplace health and safety poorly was bad for business. The most visible proof: the costs of injuries and illnesses. However, he couldn't find much research showing the corollary, that managing health and safety effectively was good for business. At least, from an operations perspective. He and his colleagues set out to explore whether this was true. "This was a collaboration between some very strong business and safety researchers. Along the way we have involved PhD students who joined the team and will hopefully carry an interest in health and safety into their future work and embed it in their university teaching curriculum. And of course we had a lot of cooperation from firms who took time to talk to us."

The team also received endorsements and support from major employers, Minerva Canada,** Workplace Safety & Prevention Services, and the Canadian Auto Workers (now part of Unifor).

The research involved a survey of almost 200 manufacturing firms in Ontario. The team also studied 10 other firms in more detail through

  • interviews with managers from operations, human resources, health and safety, shop floor supervision, and union representatives
  • safety climate surveys of workers
  • surveys of operations managers and safety managers
  • plant visits
  • review of WSIB injury rate data

Of the 10 plants, four were supportive of safe production. The other six were output-oriented in the sense that workers interpreted management priorities to mean they were to prioritize output over safety.

Johnston notes that in many Canadian workplaces there is a perceived trade-off between safety and being productive. "The perceived trade-off is that, to be productive, sometimes you have to take shortcuts. Be a little less than consistent, a little less than disciplined, a little less proactive and more reactive."

"In the companies that we looked at," continues Johnston, "the ones insisting that people don't take shortcuts, that were disciplined, were proactive versus reactive - which really meant investing in process improvement and their people - not only had better safety, but also ran their operations better… These companies also involve workers in the design of work and audited operations relentlessly."

The take-away: "Unless you're figuring out together how to do the work as efficiently and with the highest level of quality and safety possible, all at the same time, you're not going to get people who are safe or productive."

We can help you get there

According to Andrew Harkness, these findings line up directly with WSPS' Occupational Health & Safety Management Systems suite of solutions. "We provide you with a systematic and proactive approach to workplace health, safety and wellness that promote process consistency, efficiency, continual improvement and employee engagement."

Check out WSPS' management systems consulting solutions, as well as an array of related training solutions.

In the new year, watch for a new series of articles featuring practical tips for implementing management systems solutions.

* All four papers reveal synergies and disconnects between management’s intentions, their actions, and outcomes for worker safety and operating performance. The papers were published in these journal articles:

  • “Are safety and operational effectiveness contradictory requirements: The roles of routines and relational coordination,” Journal of Operations Management 36 (2015) 1-14. Authors M. Pagell, R. Klassen, D. Johnston, A. Shevchenko, S. Sharma
  • “Is safe production an oxymoron?”, Production Operations Management 23 (2014), pp. 1161-1175. Authors: M. Pagell, D. Johnston, A. Veltri, R. Klassen, M. Biehl
  • “When does lean hurt? - an exploration of lean practices and worker health and safety outcomes,” International Journal of Production Research, Vol. 51, Iss. 11, 2013. pp. 3300-3320. Authors: A. Longoni, M. Pagell , D. Johnston, A. Veltri
  • “Understanding safety in the context of business operations: An exploratory study using case studies,” Safety Science, Volume 55, June 2013, Pages 119-13. Authors: A. Veltri, M. Pagell, D. Johnston, E. Tompa, L. Robson, B. Amick III, S. Hogg-Johnson, S. Macdonald

** Minerva Canada is a non-profit volunteer-run organization that provide initiatives and resources to help colleges and universities train tomorrow’s leaders in the skills of incident and injury prevention.