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The Problem With Safety

Do We Value Safety?

Recently, I spoke with a safety expert who has worked for several decades in the safety industry. During this time he provided training, wrote books, and consulted, all to help advance safety. He has now decided to leave the industry to pursue other goals. I asked him why and this is what he said, "safety remains a difficult sell." He is tired of trying to persuade business owners on something they do not want to do.

After many decades of promoting safety by him and many others in the field, he observed that there are still too many business owners who would rather wait until they are fined instead of avoiding incidents in the first place. They might buy some training to demonstrate that they are doing something. However, for the most part, they do not value and are not willing to pay to improve safety in their companies.

This lack of valuing safety shows up in other ways. It is not uncommon to discover postings for safety professionals to manage entire safety programs that require full safety credentials, a minimum of 5 years experience, and yet only pay them entry level wages. Who wants to work in an industry where very few value your expertise and where you are constantly trying to persuade others to value something that they fundamentally don't.

The same reasons are given time and time again. I can't afford it, it is too technical, I don't understand it, that's what I have insurance for, and it takes away from my bottom line. The last one being being the most common.

A former VP of a pipeline company told me that they were always interested in safety and reducing costs. What he meant by this was that safety is of interest if it reduces cost, and therein lies the rub.

This cost reduction message is heard across all industries and across all compliance programs be it safety, security, quality, environmental, and regulatory. All of these programs are seen as an overhead that do not add value. Compliance activities show up in value-streams as necessary but fundamentally as waste and therefore something to eliminate or reduce. Again, who wants to work at something that is considered in this way.

No wonder people leave these fields to work in areas where their efforts will be valued and rewarded. Ask anyone who has been involved in a merger or acquisition as to what areas are cut first and you will have proof as to what is valued. Compliance programs in all its forms ends up being the first to cut. The rationale often given is that we are doing fine with our safety. We haven't had a reportable incident for some time. We can survive with a minimal staff for now. That is the risk many companies are willing to take.

This view of compliance while predominate is missing the point. We have all been taught that value is in the eyes of the customer. That is how we determine the quality of our products and services. What is often forgotten is that customers also have quality expectations for how a company manufactures its products and delivers its services.

An increasing number of stakeholders also expect companies to not harm the environment, to respect their employees, to abide by the rule of law, to not commit fraud, to protect the rights of their customers, and the list goes on. These too are values and should be considered as part of the overall value proposition.

The tension between value production and compliance is a false dichotomy based on an old-factory model. Meeting obligations through effective compliance programs is a value chain in its own right and a critical part of overall value production.

Lean Compliance Value Chain

Compliance programs when effective are a value-add and not a tax on production or a waste in the value-stream. Compliance delivers value to stakeholders by ensuring that obligations are met consistently and to the highest standards. This engenders trust, reduces risks, and improves customer loyalty.

Companies that do not value these programs experience the opposite. By cutting their compliance programs they increase their risks, create uncertainty in meeting obligations, and lose the trust of their stakeholders.

It's time to think differently about compliance.

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