It was clear that Paul O’Neill was a hero to the other folks on the stage when he delivered the Occupational Keynote at the National Safety Council Congress & Expo in Chicago.  NSC president Janet Froetscher made an unscheduled appearance after O’Neill was introduced , expressing her admiration and presenting him the Council’s President’s Award.  NIOSH director John Howard, the other keynoter at the session and safety star in his own right, appeared equally in awe. 

O’Neill is a legend in worker health and safety.  When he became CEO of Alcoa in the late 80s, he decided that he wanted to be remembered for safety, and declared that the company goal would be zero lost worktime injuries.  He told managers that if they identify a condition that presents a risk, they were to fix it, without regard to the cost.  He gave hourly workers his home phone number and told them they could call him if managers failed to correct safety problems.  Under his direction, Alcoa established a system to track safety problems and lapses, used the data to constantly improve, and made its safety reports accessible to all employees.  When a young worker was killed in an Alcoa plant, O’Neill called the entire chain of command to Pittsburgh to review the incident.  “We killed that young man,” he said, a sobering message that resonated through the company.  O’Neill demanded that he be notified within 24 hours of any injury that caused a worker to lose a work day.

An injury-free workplace should be a precondition, not a priority, he said.  It’s up to the leader to set aspirational goals, and the leader also has to eliminate all excuses for not meeting those goals.  Then everyone in the organization needs to take ownership of the goal, so that safety becomes “part of the rhythm of the organization – like breathing.”  As CEO of Alcoa, as Secretary of the Treasury, as a leader in safety in health care, Paul O’Neill was comfortable taking risks with his own reputation in pursuit of eliminating risks to the men and women who worked for him.  And it worked.  Alcoa’s safety performance, already better than the national average, continued to improve as the corporate culture embraced safety as an absolute.  At the same time, Alcoa has prospered financially as all workers are empowered by the realization that the company is serious about its commitment to its people.

A firm believer in full disclosure, O’Neill expressed no sympathy for cautious approaches under the threat of lawsuits.  Failure to report incidents for fear of liability is a design flaw in an organization, he said, adding that boards should be educated to “do the right thing and don’t sweat the lawyers.” 

When O’Neill left Alcoa, with a record of success in every conventional measure of corporate performance, he said that he’d consider himself a success if the company’s lost workday rate and recordable incident rate continued to fall after his departure.  His accomplishments are well documented, and worth a review.


Should an employer have to pay its workers for the time they spend putting on and taking off required personal protective equipment and apparel?  It seems like a no-brainer – if an employee has to be properly outfitted to do a job safely, then donning the outfit should be compensable time.  Federal regulations and courts agree.

But there’s a long-standing exception in federal law for unionized workplaces.  For many unions, this time is a bargaining chip, given up in negotiations to get something they consider more valuable to the workers.  So union steelworkers may not be paid for time it takes to change into safety gear, while nonunion employees are compensated.   Courts have upheld that practice.

A group of steelworkers at a U.S. Steel plant in Gary, IN is appealing, claiming they should be paid for the extra hours they spend suiting up.  As the Wall Street Journal reported on September 3, the Steelworkers union is not participating in the suit, though the AFL-CIO and United Food and Commercial Workers International Union filed a brief in support of the workers.  Their interest is obvious, as the decision could affect other unionized industries such as meatpacking.  The U.S. Chamber and the Obama Administration are backing the company, in the interest of maintaining the status quo of collective bargaining.   The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case, Sandifer vs U.S. Steel, in November.

The lawsuit raises the issue of whether a union can bargain away part of a member’s working day.  All parties must be careful that any decision in the case does not limit an employee’s access to essential PPE.


Say something!

This is a catchphrase of homeland security, warning us in train stations, subway cars and other public places to be alert to suspicious people or activities.  Let’s use it for safety as well.  How often do you see someone working without the right protection?  Breaking up a sidewalk with a jackhammer with no hearing protection?  Walking across a rafter with no fall arrest harness and lanyard?  Walking through a cloud of concrete dust at a worksite with no respirator?  It doesn’t have to be limited to workplace activities, either.  How about people who mow the lawn barefooted, or ride a bycicle in traffic bareheaded?

Maybe you don’t want to be thought of as a nag, or butt into someone else’s business.  But if your profession is safety, it isn’t nagging to make sure everyone is protected.  Say something!  Find a supervisor or foreman, or remind the worker of the bad things that can happen in an instant, or over a lifetime, if they don’t take care. 

You can even take it a step further.  When you see pictures in the paper or online of people doing work in a way that you know is dangerous, write  the editor or add a comment.  You may not get an immediate result, but if everyone is vigilant – and vocal – we could move the needle a little toward awareness of personal protection, and make a safer world.

The National Safety Council Congress & Expo in Orlando was the last of the major safety industry trade shows for the year. 
Did you attend?  Did you atttend the AIHce in Indianapolis?  ASSE Safety 2012 in Denver?  The VPPPA Expo in Anaheim?  Why not?
Suppliers of PPE are always looking for the best way to reach purchasers and users, and trade shows are an important part of their marketing plans.  But with multiple national safety shows every year in the US, plus regional shows and events aimed at specific markets, they’re pulled in many directions.  That’s why we’ve put together a simple survey – 16 questions – to find out what you think about the safety industry trade shows, and how they could be made better.  We’ll share the results with the sponsors of the major events, as part of our effort to improve the trade show experience for exhibitors and attendees alike.
You can take the survey online.  Here’s the link.  Thanks for your help!

OH&S magazine has reprinted a 2007 article that gives a quick history of personal protective equipment.  It notes landmark in protection from some ISEA member companies that are still active in the business.  Check it out.