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?)
“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.