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.