In 1987, Paul O’Neill, the brand new CEO of Alcoa, delivered his first speech to the company’s shareholders. The eager investors waited anxiously to hear O’Neill describe the enormous profits that were coming, or to assure them they’d invested in a successful, burgeoning company.
In truth, O’Neill did indicate that Alcoa’s shareholders had selected a successful corporation, but not in the way that they expected.
Rather than heralding a rise in sales and an explosion in profits, O’Neill chose to focus on an altogether different matter: workplace health and safety.
It wasn’t money which would demonstrate the positive growth of Alcoa. Instead, O’Neill said firmly, it would be an impeccable record of employee safety. Digging a little deeper, we can discover just what O’Neill had in mind.
Loud and clear ambitions
In his speech, O’Neill said that Alcoa already had a record of safety, particularly considering its manufacturing industry. Injuries were not overly commonplace, but they still happened. However, O’Neill said that the ultimate test of the company’s success would be revealed in its safety numbers. His goal? Zero injuries.
This may have seemed a lofty goal to those stockholders and employees present for the speech. Yet it got O’Neill’s message across loud and clear. The safety of the employees–and not financial gains–were the priority for Alcoa.
A united commitment in the workplace
With this new direction firmly in place, O’Neill introduced the basis for this approach. A significant goal such as zero workplace injuries would only happen when there was a major shift in the attitude of the entire company. How would this happen? O’Neill said rates of injury would drop
“…because the individuals at this company have agreed to become part of something important: They’ve devoted themselves to creating a habit of excellence. Safety will be an indicator that we’re making progress in changing our habits across the entire institution. That’s how we should be judged.”
Uniting with a common goal and a decisive commitment to safety would be the cause of Alcoa’s transformation, O’Neill said. Right away, it was clear that he was a different type of CEO: one who prioritised the wellbeing of his staff above all else.
Why was this tactic effective?
Spoiler alert: Alcoa did eventually become one of the safest companies in the world. It’s fairly evident that O’Neill’s guidance is what led to this achievement. But why was this strategy so successful?
- O’Neill recognised the power of the group.
Alcoa wasn’t operated under an “every man for himself” mentality. The revived commitment to health and safety encouraged Alcoa workers to consider the group rather than the individual. Joined together under the common goal (zero injuries) employees looked out for one another. This desire to see all benefit equally is part of essential human nature and helped to turn Alcoa into a great company.
- The “why” came first.
O’Neill didn’t begin by telling his shareholders and employees his new ideas. First, he got them onboard with his tactics because he showed them why they were important. He enabled his team to rally behind him and share his values. He started first with the “why” and then moved to the “what” (actions to be taken) and the “how” (the ways in which they’d be implemented). This step by step approach helped him become something of a hero to the Alcoa workers; they saw he put their safety first.
- It was all about habit.
O’Neill’s strategy created habits and not just actions. After setting forth his bold plan, he made sure this was followed up with real solutions. The company researched what was going wrong in the manufacturing process to identify hazards. After researching, Alcoa employees received ongoing training about quality control and efficient and safe practices. This developed new habits from the start which kept the entirety of the workplace accountable and safe.
A focus on Work Health and Safety transforms organisations
It’s clear that this approach made a huge difference. Within a year of his groundbreaking speech, Alcoa, under O’Neill’s leadership, had seen its profits reach an all time high. Those who doubted his vision and hurriedly sold their stock would regret it deeply.
But O’Neill’s idea, though apparently novel at the time, made a lot of sense. O’Neill understood that an integral element of the workplace such as health and safety has the ability to affect an entire organisation, both positively and negatively.
One of the most important outcomes of this new focus was an increased quality of communication. O’Neill introduced a new policy regarding injuries. If a worker was injured, the unit president not only had to report it to O’Neill within 24 hours, but also had to devise a plan to prevent its recurrence. This ensured new procedures were in place (and new habits developed) that made Alcoa safer. In addition, workers were encouraged to report any injuries they witnessed or potential hazards they observed. They could even submit safety ideas to a suggestion box. When a revised safety plan was needed, management had the direct resource of the workers themselves. This meant that the safety plans were generally highly effective.
Work health and safety matters
O’Neill’s pioneering success shows us just how much workplace health and safety matters. Across industries and at varying levels, an emphasis and dedication to safety procedures is paramount.
At LMIT, we offer 3 distinct programs of study under the Work Health and Safety umbrella. The Certificate IV qualification enables graduates to find employment as Safety Officers or WHS Coordinators: integral parts of a comprehensive WHS system. The Diploma of Work Health and Safety goes a step further for those already employed in the field who are looking to advance. Lastly is the Advanced Diploma of Work Health and Safety. Professionals with 3 or more years of WHS experience can apply for this program which will allow them to achieve the necessary qualification for WHS and Risk Management Consultants, Auditors, and more.
Careers in work health and safety
Is a position in WHS right for you? If you are considering moving into this vital and rewarding career field, we invite you to join us for our event during Adult Learners Week from 1-8 September. We will offer helpful information sessions on pursuing careers in work health and safety. You can speak to our knowledgeable team, learn more about our convenient online programs, and take steps towards the next milestone in your professional life.
O’Neill’s vision can inspire us all. Health and safety in the workplace is really the glue that holds it all together. If you share a dedication to helping an organisation be the best and safest it can be, than a career in WHS will open the doors to your success.
Published by: LMIT