The Pragmatic Lawyer’s View of Building a Safety Culture


After 30 years of practicing labor law and managing more than 500 fatality cases, I am a pragmatic guy and I don’t like jargon. I look for practical solutions. And yet, I absolutely agree that we must do more than “comply,” we must build a safety “culture.” One can achieve decent compliance by diligence and discipline. Of course, “compliance” with OSHA standards will not alone prevent injuries. Even more tellingly, a practical focus on preventing injuries will not guarantee that you’ve crossed all the “t’s” and dotted the “i’s” to comply with OSHA standards. One has to expressly focus efforts on both goals. The only way to have a decent shot at achieving both of these goals is to build a “culture” in which employees and management automatically and continuously stop, consider the hazards, then address them. We can’t force this mindset. Management has to visibly embrace it and then convince employees that they are as serious about maintaining a safety culture as they are about other business goals. Sure, safety is a “core value,” but that term may be a bit too theoretical for a chief financial officer or plant manager. I prefer to treat it like any other business goal with plans, mile markers and accountability.

Marketing Safety

Our first challenge is thus to market the “culture” concept to management, and that involves disabusing them of some erroneous assumptions. First . . . every CEO genuinely believes that “safety is number one.” It’s not. Few executives have a realistic grasp of their safety culture, and many assume that they are just fine, thank you. In fact, a safety culture always is improving, otherwise it’s going backwards. I’m wary of the executive who blithely assumes that safety is number one. The CEOs that I trust will wince and candidly admit that they’re taking concrete steps to build a safety culture, “but they’re not there yet.” That’s the desirable mindset; then you can work on even building “passion.”

The second erroneous executive assumption is “I’ve got good people who take care of safety.” If executives silo safety as a task that only the safety professionals handle, compliance won’t occur and the culture will be one that is, at best, ambivalent. No number of safety professionals can build a safety culture without leaders pushing concrete steps to engage employees and managers.

This problem leads to our next “marketing challenge” . . . the safety professional’s attitude. Some safety professionals seem to view themselves as lone crusaders in an “us against them” battle. Granted, some companies’ safety atmosphere can contribute to such attitudes, but that’s irrelevant. The safety professional’s job is to protect workers and one does whatever it ethically requires to achieve this goal. Accordingly, I enjoy working with safety professionals that have so immersed themselves in the business process that managers view them as their partners in manufacturing or distributing goods, except that the safety professional also keeps them straight about safety. We can’t become “internal affairs cops.” Master the business. Focus on making it better … and using safety to do so.


About mavity2012

I am a Senior Partner operating out of the Atlanta office of Fisher & Phillips LLP, one of the Nation’s oldest and largest management employment and labor firms. My practice is national and keeps me on the road or in one of our 28 offices about 50 percent of the time. I created and co-chair the Firm's Workplace Safety and Catastrophe Management Practice Group. I have almost 29 years of experience as a labor lawyer, but rely even more heavily on the experience I gained in working in my family's various businesses, and through dealing with practical client issues. Employers tell me that they seldom meet an attorney who delivers on his promise to provide practical guidance and to be a business partner. As a result, some executives probably use different terms than “practical” to describe my fellow travelers in the profession. I don't enjoy the luxury of being impractical because I spend much of my time on shop floors and construction sites dealing with safety, union and related issues which are driven by real world processes and the need to protect and get the most out of one's most important business assets ... its employees. That's one of the reasons that I view safety compliance as a way to also manage problem employees, reduce litigation and develop the type of work environment that makes unions unnecessary. Starting out dealing with union-management challenges and a stint in the NLRB have better equipped me to see the interrelationship of legal and workplace factors. I am proud also of my experience at Fisher & Phillips, where providing “practical advice” is second only to legal excellence among the Firm’s values. Our website lists me as having provided counsel for over 225 occasions of union activity, guided unionized companies, and as having managed approximately 450 OSHA fatality cases in construction and general industry, ranging from dust explosions to building collapses, in virtually every state. I have coordinated complex inspections involving multi-employer sites, corporate-wide compliance, and issues involving criminal referral. As a full labor lawyer, I oversee audits of corporate labor, HR, and safety compliance. I have responded to virtually every type of day-to-day workplace inquiry, and have handled cases before the EEOC, OFCCP, NLRB, and numerous other state and federal agencies. At F & P, all of us seek to spot issues and then rely upon attorneys in the Firm who concentrate on those areas. No tunnel vision. I teach or speak around 50 times per year to business associations, bar and professional groups, and to individual businesses. I serve on safety committees at three states’ AGC Chapters, teach at the AGC ASMTC
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s