Where can I get my own Cynthia Carroll?

The June 2012 edition of the Harvard Business Review includes a fascinating article (extract online ) on safety by the controversial CEO of Anglo American, Cynthia Carroll.  The whole article is well worth reading but there was one element that I found particularly interesting, Carroll’s mention of zero harm.

Carroll visited operations in South Africa where Anglo American employed 86,000 people from various cultural background s and literacy. She writes:

“When I visited the operations, my conversations with local managers were frustrating. Safety was improving, they assured me, but it would never be perfect. My goal of zero harm was simply not achievable. The head of our platinum operations at the time insisted repeatedly, “Cynthia, you just have to understand…” As I talked to people and examined the facilities, I wondered how much authority someone who is underground for hours on end, with a shift supervisor right behind him, really has. I questioned whether a line worker had the power to put up his hand and say, “I’m not going to do this, because it is unsafe.””

Following a fatality on the day of her visit and in conjunction with the safety concerns she had, Carroll closed the Rustenburg platinum mine for a structural safety makeover.

Carroll had a belief that although the mining industry is dangerous, it is not inherently dangerous. (SafetyAtWorkBlog has written about inherent danger since 2008) She explained this belief in the phrase and ideology of zero harm. This is a logical step but one that cuts across established operational traditions in many industries.

Carroll had a new CEO’s authority, and the Board support, for change and she chose to apply this in the safety context. Safety professionals rarely, if ever, have such authority or discretion and perhaps this is why safety advocates state that safety must start at the top. Of course, that “top” must be sympathetic on safety or have a safety epiphany or see safety as a catalyst for change. To obtain even one of these three elements is rare. Carroll seems to have had all three.

Although an extract of the article is available on-line, later Carroll tells of an extraordinary decision of hers to open the company to public scrutiny by engaging with the South African Government and the trade union movement. Dealing with either government or unions is an action dreaded by many business leaders and CEOs. Carroll writes that

“I believed that the exposure and the commitments would actually be very helpful, because they would put greater pressure on the company – and industry – to change.”

In effect Carroll was a safety whistle-blower on the industry in South Africa except she blew from the privileged position of a CEO. (If only Karen Silkwood had been a CEO?)

Carroll writes

“I have always said that safety is a leading indicator of wider performance – if you get safety right, then other things will follow, from stronger relationships with unions and governments to greater productivity and efficiency across the board.”

If there was a manufacturer in this world producing Cynthia Carrolls, I would buy one.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

13 thoughts on “Where can I get my own Cynthia Carroll?”

  1. If undertaking unsafe work is balanced against putting food on the table for your family, then there is a strong tendency to undertake the work if the employer provides an either or option leading to no job if you don’t comply. This is every day reality in thousands of workplaces.

    1. Tony, this is an example of the need to remind OHS professionals, researchers and policy-makers to see the workplace and work activities in the broader social context and not just within jurisdiction or regulatory framework. Work affects family and family affects work.

  2. Tony, I would love to agree that regulators do or will have the teeth and resources to impose (legislate) good outcomes. I have produced a long discussion paper on this and conclude that in a Utopian scenario, we would all agree to be bound by good behaviours, but it ain’t going to happen in this economic model.
    One example that may be worth considering: the Coroner’s findings from the Beaconsfield disaster. 3 issues noted were:
    – Poor communication between coal-face and management (both you and Les agree on this as a requirement for good outcomes – it would indeed be great if CEO’s got out of their Ivory Towers occasionally);
    – Seismic activity had been occurring for weeks prior to the eventual rock-fall – no action taken;
    – The Mine Safety Inspector reported that their Inspectorate did not have the staff or the expertise to adequately inspect mines (only 1 had direct mining experience, I think).
    My understanding of the Tas Govt’s response to these findings was that they REDUCED funding to the Inspectorate. So, what chance that small business will ever be adequately policed? (“Pink Batts”, anyone?)
    We can also see the political/ideological shenanigans in the response to the WHS in Victoria and WA etc. So, don’t hold your breath for Legislators to impose and police good outcomes.
    Research also shows that Managers often suffer a kind of Risk-Taker’s Club one-upmanship that is part testosterone/machismo driven and part bottom-line myopia.
    There are no silver bullets. But if individuals (at all levels) are confronted with accountability for their decisions and actions, then gradually, we will see improvements. The rate of improvement will reflect the degree to which EHS as an issue can cut through the white noise of competing issues and distractions bombarding corporate decision-makers and politicians.

  3. Kevin, I read your 2008 article before I formulated my post. Happy to discuss, but I still fail to see how giving a Type 2 Diabetic their first ever insulin shot somehow removes the chronic (‘inherent’) disease (hazard or risk).

  4. Hi Les, I don’t agree that regulators will never have the resources needed. In a very practical world the regulators are policemen and with that should be the armory of on the spot fines which will provide more than sufficient funding to pay for aggressive enforcement.

    The hip pocket nerve is a wonderful thing for focusing peoples attention on that which matters.

    If we are truly concerned with injury reduction in the work place then this type of approach should form a significant part of legislation and operation. For it to be effective it means more interaction in the workplace. which has to be a good thing.

    1. Hi Tony, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on this matter. The hip pocket nerve has never succeeded in getting some members of the general public to ‘slow down’ hence we have double demerit point long weekends where policing and police numbers on the roads is increased and still people get dead or injured or booked for speeding and other road rule infringements.
      There has never been a single law written, or an enforcement agency empowered to enforce it, that has prevented someone from breaching that law.
      And so, whilst the majority of employers (PCBUS’) will do the right thing and seek to ensure the safety of their workers, there will always be a proportion that ‘take the risk’ that they will not be caught, or worse, do not care if they get caught and have to pay the penalty. I would hazard a guess and suggest that for some there is even a certain thrill associated with flouting the law.
      At the end of the day we have to recognise that, whilst enforcement has a role to play in improving safety performance, the primary reason that people still get hurt is because, whatever the root cause of their action, they act in unsafe ways.
      Yes, employers may have unsafe workplaces and unsafe plant and unsafe substances but no-one is forced to place themself at risk in such workplaces – except that they see themselves as powerless due to their financial status or their education level or whatever they perceive to be the thing that makes them powerless to say “No – I will not put my job security ahead of my life or my safety.”
      At the end of the day exploitative employers survive because people allow themselves to be exploited.
      And so, we have to work at helping people to see that job security is useless if you are maimed or, worse, dead.

  5. I checked out the article and was struck by the first sentence:
    “The Idea: Mining involves risk, and some executives believe fatalities are inevitable.”
    I have written elsewhere about the situation I found when I came to my current role in the disability services industry, and also what I had experienced in other industries, – an ‘expectation’ that certain injuries are inevitable.
    Wherever I have come across this expectation I find the respective middle and front line managers are unlikely to work to prevent such expected injuries. This then results in the collective culture of the workplace accepting that these injuries are ‘just part of the job’.
    And yet, with just a little effort, these very injuries are, at the least, able to be mitigated and, at best, fully preventable.
    The first step is to give the affected employees the power to say ‘let’s stop and examine this’.
    This seems to be Cynthia’s focus when she says “As I talked to people and examined the facilities, I wondered how much authority someone who is underground for hours on end, with a shift supervisor right behind him, really has. I questioned whether a line worker had the power to put up his hand and say, “I’m not going to do this, because it is unsafe.””
    I have found that in workplaces where this power is given to the workers the immediate result is a reduction in work related injuries. In many cases productivity is also immediately improved due, in the first instance, to a reduction in lost work hours following the very incidents that required investigation, medical treatment and lost time. And, in the second instance, to workers having confidence that the work can be performed safely and they don’t need to fear being injured.
    I believe that most CEOs would echo Cynthia’s sentiment if they were to go out to the coalface from time to time to meet with workers and see what actually happens. Unfortunately many of them don’t and so, due to primary the focus of measurement being ‘the bottom line’, middle and front line managers are loath to stop work to examine, much less revise, something they ‘expect’ to result in injuries anyway.
    I don’t think injury prevention is rocket science but then O/WHS never was in my opinion.
    Regulators wil never have the resources to enforce at every workplace, CEO’s of larger, geographically spread workplaces will never have the time to visit every worksite. BUT EVERY MANAGER can give their subordinates the power to say ‘let’s stop and consider this’.

  6. Mark, I agree with you and I have been trumpeting similar comment, but maybe not so eloquently, a dangerous work environment is just that, and to manage risk is to make that environment less dangerous by what ever practical means. That is what legislation demands yet it is not being prosecuted by those charged with enforcing the law and if that is not done, why would any employer give a damn.

    Carrolls comment is right on the money.

    “I believed that the exposure and the commitments would actually be very helpful, because they would put greater pressure on the company – and industry – to change.”

    The issue remains that the greater proportion of our workforce is employed by small business and unless policed vigorously nothing much will change. There is no obvious incentive for small business to invest in safety.

  7. No, I’m sorry, but you are going to have to explain this convolution of the English Language to force feed it through a macerator to conform to an ideological position.
    “The mining industry is dangerous, it is not inherently dangerous.”??? Just how do you define “inherent”?
    So, according to you, walking across an open park and walking across a tightrope above Niagara Falls are equivalent and the later has no danger ‘built into’ the activity? And somehow, recognising and conceding the inherent danger of Rock Fishing would mean that a OHS professional is to be avoided and shunned? (Like the ex-cop OHS Professional & Trainer that asked, “Is mining a dangerous activity?” and when he was answered, “Yes” said, “Then I wouldn’t work with you!” Idiot. Would he rather an oblivious, high-risk-taker that couldn’t recognise a Hazard if it bit him on the behind working next to him? Apparently.)
    Are you really trying to claim that a danger, once recognised and managed somehow transmogrifies the activity to remove its essential hazardous nature?
    I fully accept that maybe there is some technical jargon weasel-word re-definition going on here that has not been adequately explained to me, in which case, I am grudgingly prepared to be persuaded (though I despise Management Speak re-definitions as they are designed to obscure communication, not enhance it. This smacks of a trendy conceptual position that rivals the widespread use of the term “Entre” on North American restaurant menus to mean ‘Main Course’ – some moron made a mistake and all the trendoids blithely followed suit.)
    Surely, recognition of inherent or intrinsic risk should lead to a higher focus on managing the risks, not less focus. Can you (along with many in the industry) really be asserting that if something is recognised and accepted as intrinsically dangerous, then everyone will decide to take a less rigorous attitude to mitigating the risks (‘Why bother, it’s dangerous and there’s nothing we can do to change it.’ Really?). What a strange worldview. Your understanding of human psychology must be very different to mine.
    To claim there is no inherent danger in hard-rock underground mining, pre or post Risk Management is, to me, an abuse of the English language as I understand it. If there is no inherent danger in human beings driving a motor car or engaging in illegal underground mining, then perhaps you could offer an alternate explanation for the death toll associated with those activities?
    Other than that, it’s indeed almost uniquely satisfying to see a CEO echoing my belief that Safety, efficiency, quality and productivity can and should be seen as integrated. Should be more of it. Perhaps with the conviction of the principals of Eternit, we may see more such values and actions.

  8. Is there even one CEO in Australia that would come close to Cynthia. Seriously, I would like to know, because that would be an example to trumpet to all of the employer organisations and government.

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