Last week I gave a talk on “Designing a Worker-Centric Facility” at Promat 2013, the nation’s largest material handling equipment trade show.  The audience was mostly safety professionals and ergonomists, in addition to some representatives from the insurance industry and government.

In the discussion that followed, I was struck by mixture of the genuine concern for people (workers, laborers, those vulnerable to injury) and the reality that management takes action only when a sufficient business case can be made—in today’s world, that means demonstrating a significant Return On Investment (ROI). Much of the discussion was devoted to how to make the case to management for, say, lift tables to avoid lower-back injuries, or for some way to help delivery drivers schlep beer kegs up and down stairwells without slipping and falling. Fascinating, real, very real stuff.

Roboman Lift Table by Southworth
Roboman Lift Table by Southworth

One participant expressed frustration at the fact that management seemed willing to fund interventions in ergonomics and safety only after a major incident or after workman’s comp claims got too high. It reminded me of a factory that fails to perform preventive maintenance because, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Why should the cost of workman’s comp be the measure against which safety and ergo equipment is purchased? When I purchased hearing protection for my boys to use in our woodworking shop, I didn’t calculate ROI.

Then I wondered how many executives would hesitate to install reasonable precautions against long-term injury if their children were the workers. That simple question, “what would I do if it were my child (or brother, or father)?” seems like a reasonable litmus test for action in matters difficult to quantify. I am not advocating going overboard here—nobody wins if the company wastes its resources and becomes unprofitable. But it seems that we are so far from this concern it isn’t even worth mentioning. Lift tables aren’t going to put anyone out of business, or even make them uncompetitive.

In the end, we were left grappling for just the right metric to justify such purchases. Some argued for workman’s comp, some for costs of high worker turnover.

How about using good judgment instead?

5 thoughts on “ROI vs The People

  1. Dr. Gue, I think one of the ways to make case for the management is to show how workers perceive (not how management claims) safety. No matter what management claims, people who work have an idea of their own safety because they have to deal with back pain, muscle pain, reduced hearing/sight. The next step is to study if the workers are aware of the place where they would be more safer. Then, I would want to know if they would switch the job if they had a chance. Keeping myself in a worker’s feet, if I had to endure pain everyday then I would always be looking for a chance to go somewhere else. Management will, I think, see this as a danger because of all the cost involved in losing employees, replacing them, training them and so many other costs. I do not know if such studies exist but I think management’s claim for safety is always much higher than worker’s perception of safety. When this difference is higher than the threshold then there will be all the cost that the company will have to bear and will reflect in their reduced ROI.

  2. I like the observation that the real issue is claimed safety versus perceived safety. One participant at this meeting reported good results when an executive in his firm worked for awhile at the floor level. Suddenly, the perception and the claim were equal!

  3. Very good take on the situation. We work “on the ground” with various safety related equipment. One of our lines, AisleCop, which helps protect pedestrians from forklifts, is much easier to sell once an incident has occurred. It’s as if the blinders are off, since now the operation is face to face with a six-figure expense. Finding ways to connect management to the potential ROI and the cost of injuries is useful, but the human cost of misery ought to be the driver. Some companies are proactive, and others are not.

  4. “Then I wondered how many executives would hesitate to install reasonable precautions against long-term injury if their children were the workers”

    This a great statement.
    Fantastic article

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