Safety Third? – New Video from Mike Rowe

We posted a new video for your viewing pleasure (in addition to the other great videos that are already there that you should check out). This video, from Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame, shows a number of themes that jump out at me as interesting. First, the idea gap between how work is imagined and work is performed (as exampled in the sheep castration story) strikes me as classic and novel at the same time.

Second, and most directly related to the focus of this site, are his thoughts on safety management. Obviously they are very provocative, leading to some outrage, as he mentions in the video (he posted a response to one US-based safety magazine here). Is safety third a conversation worth having? Or does the idea miss the point?

What are your reflections upon viewing the video?


  1. Shane Durdin Reply

    What a great find Ron. I burst out laughing a few times through Mike’s retelling of his lamb castration story. I worked sheep farms from a very early age and instantly associated with his story and what I have seen and done. Yes, I’ve had sheep testicles in my mouth, but there is a better technique using a specialized hook knife which is cleaner and faster than teeth with the same result. I digress though, and to your point on work as imagined versus work as done, that is definitely one example which demonstrates the divide that can exist.

    What I personally enjoyed most from Mike’s talk is the question of whether it is actually ‘safety third’. Although i never really heard that particular phrase, its definitely something has been discussed in a safety differently forum. Well over a year ago at an event after a Safety Lab session, I think it was Daniel who posed a question to the group around whether we were safety professionals or were we something else. I believe at that point I said i think not, and still do to this day. I believe we are a group of people who assist in business resilience, marketing, human resource management, asset protection and so on, but somehow capture all those things in one word. Safety. The other point to make here is the reality of our existence is purely for business, and hopefully good business. For without a company who has a product or a service to sell, without a profit there would be no business, and therefore no employment. First and foremost, the business is there to make a profit for its investors and we (‘safety professionals’), like many other functions, are there to facilitate profit making through efficiency, reputation and resilience (I will be bold and say in that order too). Like Mike states in his response article, there are many time when ‘safety’ is not efficient, and at times opposes resilience because it can potentially create greater risks. The safety discussion here is about us as professions realizing that safety is not first in the board of directors minds, the executive managers minds and so on as that cascades down. Their mind is on making profit first, so why are we as a profession aligned to that? Now some will argue that is the old adage of ‘production over safety’ and that it should be safe production; however its profitable production, its efficient production, quality production, sustainable production… not just safety, and yet its put up on a plateau as being first and foremost. The battle is lost right there in most cases i believe as is the credibility of the safety profession if they think that it is safety above all else, and this is in direct conflict with the sole purpose of the business (to make profit).

    The UK Prime Minister is very much leading the charge in relation to the effect of ‘safety’ on business and there is, as always, an opposing side to the debate. I’d be interested in peoples thoughts on the article via the link below, to see if which side they lean towards, but also what the middle ground may look like if there was any middle ground on this topic.

  2. Rob Long Reply

    I reckon third might be too high. The delusion of safety first is no different than the absolute of zero and tge denial of fallibility. Its only in safety that we see such masdive disconnect from reality in the discourse about risk. Im sure many of the professiobs must laugh at poor okd oerfectionist safety in heaven behind a 3 metre high fence.

  3. Gary Wong Reply

    I often heard “safety first” being said by senior managers and execs. In some cases it was sincere but in others it was perceived as a flippant remark (“I have to leave now. Nice seeing you. And remember, safety first.”) as he rushed out the door.

    I’d to offer a complexity perspective. If someone were to ask me what I thought about “safety first”, here’s my response:

    Putting safety above everything else is ideal, but it’s not natural.
    Competent workers know how to make sense of the Present and adjust their actions accordingly.
    An overemphasis on safety can lead to creating conditions from which danger can emerge.
    This is the “more is different” phenomenon of complexity science.
    More and more will eventually lead to a tipping point and failure as an unintended consequence.
    “Safety Always” is preferred which means always being aware of and anticipating varying conditions as the work is actually performed.

  4. Paul Nelson Reply

    I like the direction Gary is looking. I use a phrase in my business, “Safety is Action not a Possession”. Too often Safety is thought of as a possession when in systems view it is an emergent property of the system. Cartesian-Newtonian logic flows in such linearity and is so interwoven in our society it is natural to think of safety as something you “bolt-on” to your business after the fact. Furthermore I think that cultural pressures leave a business open to criticism if Safety is put some where less than No. 1, even though linearly it can’t be in that position. Safety Always has a system perspective to it which recognizes that behaviors of a system are a result of many relational connections, indirect, cross, dependent etc., from which safety (or lack there of) will be and emergent property. As safety professionals it is incumbent on us to exhibit ways that Safety Always is part of business resilience and centered efficiency, and not in conflict with them.

  5. Nadeem Ahmed Reply

    The issue with safety not being first is the follow-up question – how many injuries can we tolerate? I doubt anyone will give any answer other than zero. A more realistic element does enter when setting annual objectives – usually they allow for some injuries as long as the frequency is a reduction from the previous year.

    “Safety First” in my opinion does not mean that safety is more important than anything else, or that the workplace’s aim is to keep a worker safe – which it clearly isn’t. Rather I take it as something the worker has to keep in their mind when starting any task: think about their own safety first. Before starting any task the worker should think about how to do it safely. So while worker safety might not be first in the mind of the shareholder, it had better be in the worker’s mind. If he wants to get home in one piece, that is!

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