'Zero is the Right Answer,' O'Neill Declares

Speaking in an Oct. 1 keynote at the 2013 NSC conference, former Alcoa CEO Paul O'Neill explained why he's focused on worker safety throughout his exemplary career in private sector and government posts

CHICAGO -- One of the icons of the U.S. safety industry, former Alcoa CEO and U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, gave a powerful speech Oct. 1 about the enduring value of safety and the importance of abiding commitment to zero worker injuries by top corporate managers. Speaking at the 2013 National Safety Congress and Expo immediately after National Safety Council CEO and President Janet Froetscher presented the NSC President's Award to him, O'Neill recounted his early experiences at Alcoa and discussed his current work in the health care industry.

"I will take it [the President's Award] as a forward token of what I haven't done but intend to do," O'Neill said after the presentation. He then discussed how he brought home the message of zero injuries to managers and workers throughout Alcoa after being hired as CEO in 1986. "My measure was, people here should never be hurt at work," he explained. The company's lost work day rate in June 1987 was 1.86 (compared with the overall U.S. average rate of 5.0 at that time), and as of Sept. 30, 2013, it had declined to .082, he said.

"Only leaders can set aspirational goals," O'Neill said. "It's really hard to get that from the bottom up."

He discovered when he arrived at the U.S. Treasury that no one at the agency knew what its injury rate was. When it was calculated, he found -- as he expected -- it mirrored the national rate at that time. "There aren't any immune industries," he added.

O'Neill said he now works in the health care industry, which is the most dangerous industry for its employees in the United States, with an injury rate of about 7.0 Patient falls, health care acquired infections, medication errors, and employee injuries are all related, O'Neill said, and nationally, compliance with hand-washing guidelines stands at just 50 percent. Companies can get to zero injuries only by getting everyone to own the goal, he said, adding that he recommends that health care organizations be required to post their patient falls, health care acquired infections, medication errors, and employee injuries every day, publicly, so the general public will know how safe the organizations really are.

"Zero is the right answer. And it's the job of safety professionals to help everyone else to get there," he said.

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