How Supply Chain Challenges Spur Safetys Prominence

You don’t have to look around very far to see the obvious, that labor is becoming scarce throughout the US. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, “The Labor Shortage Is Here to Stay. Businesses Are Adjusting”:  “… the U.S. is still missing around 4.3 million workers. The absence comes as U.S. employers are struggling to fill more than 10 million job openings and meet soaring consumer demand.”

It’s not just a temporary/pandemic-spiked thing. A survey of respected economists revealed:  “Many expect the labor shortage to last at least several more years, and some say it’s permanent.” Worker deficits range the gamut from restaurant employees to healthcare professionals. However, the supply chain has been especially hard-hit, responsible for moving raw materials to manufacturers to form their products, then moving these out the factory door to fulfillment centers, and then, in turn, distributing them to millions of end users. Consider, Amy Davidson Sorkin wrote, in “The Supply-Chain Mystery”, published in The New Yorker:  “What’s often at the heart of a supply-chain issue is a labor issue…. ‘Just in time’ delivery works only if you can deliver.” The weakest link? Every part of this chain depends on workers who will and do show up and actually able to perform high-demand tasks.

While this article overviewed several business strategies for coping with chain weaknesses, there was one glaring omission – the crucial importance of ramping up safety culture and performance. Attraction, retention and human performance translates into newly critical dimensions of next-level organizational Safety. IMO, safety professionals have long been on the “defensive” (no, not just concerned their positions would be eliminated at the first drop of any cost-reductions – although there’s been that.) “Defensive,” as in keenly focused on not letting bad things, like incidents, happen (that, regrettably, some managers and workers don’t actually believe will ever occur.) On reducing or ideally eliminating risk (though you can never get rid of them all at work and in homes.)

But shift forward, the workscape’s different now. It’s clearly not a buyer’s market for workers as some people are no longer available, many have voluntarily left the workforce, and others see quitting as a real option if they don’t feel well-treated by or aligned with their employer, its mission and practices. It now seems companies’ “Help Wanted” pleas and posters are prominently out, often with highly-sweeten-the-pot offers besieging people to pretty please sign up to work with them.

This tectonic shift changes the landscape in a way that clearly impacts safety. With this, safety leaders might progress beyond “just”/predominantly preventing lost-time injuries (and convincing senior leaders to support these efforts to save workers compensation costs.) To recalibrating their mindset towards helping create and tend the ballast that actually keeps companies afloat, able to continue to survive and thrive and fulfill their mission amidst fierce competition. It’s redirecting from playing mostly “prevent defense” (which never seems to work in football) to being assertive on offense. That is, away from just averting losses/trying to justify reasons for expending resources to sidestep what hopefully won’t happen much more towards directly elevating profitability. Recentering Safety from being perceived as a somewhat passive cost center to one that actively and tangibly boosts the bottom line. Attraction and retention – and discretionary effort motivation - of key staff may have long appeared in many executives’ concerns list, but getting and keeping workers on board has now become dramatically prioritized.

However, here’s the challenge. In our three plus decades experience working with numerous distribution/fulfillment center/warehouse operations in a wide array of industries, we’ve consistently seen these being ultra-time-driven, speeding through several potential risks and often exhibiting highly uneven morale – more so, in general, than many other business sectors even in other segments of the same company.

Specifically, it’s more than direct injury costs that can beleaguer warehouse operations, it’s very much having workers unavailable during peaking demands that don’t seem to sufficiently ebb to allow taking a breath and for those employees still coming into work but not being able to function at a high level, hampered by nagging pains and injuries that aren’t seen as serious enough to “turn in.” Perhaps, resulting in fewer low-level problems/incidence but greater and more impacting severe issues.

Especially in such thinly-staffed, time-driven operations, injuries generate cascading effects on others as well. NDCP’s Nick McAfee (who is a Safety Manager overseeing nine distribution centers) said, “Injuries put a lot of stress on the other people who are working.” When someone is hurt and out – or just not working to their potential – others bear the brunt of taking up the slack in this high-demand industry – more so with ever greater current performance expectations.

So, what gets in the way of warehouse/distribution center workers remaining at work and in a highly functional way? Physically, there’s no statistical question:  soft-tissue injuries/strains/sprains predominate, followed by slips, trips and falls. Mentally – it’s lack of energy and engagement and connection vs. seeing and treating workers as valued individuals, not as pieces to be pushed even harder and faster.

What does consistently work? Internalizing safety by transferring high-level level effectiveness skills (placing people in real control of their own safety, mentally and physically) and nurturing a strongly concerned and considered safety culture that enthuses, energizes and elicits different kinds of leadership on all levels.

Want to become more safety-persuasive with executives and managers? Go beyond the old talking points from another era. Carefully filling out, then only communicating the balance sheet of direct costs of injuries might have swayed managers in the past. However, times have changed. Now, there are strategic and operational issues at play.

All challenges are also opportunities for strategic leaders. This unprecedented-in-our-lifetime pandemic, along with its lingering complications, has devastated many worldwide, resulting in incalculable losses in too many dimensions. But it has also elevated the importance of safety, taking personal control, becoming more mindfully aware of health, the need for PPE and more.

What used to be relegated as merely human resources or employment issues actually very much resides squarely in the bailiwick of enlightened leaders. When addressed in best ways, these challenging times have highlighted the essential mission of safety and health leadership to safeguard, strengthen and reassure the lives and well-being of so many, both at work and at home. Reposition safety as one of the critical foundations of organizational strength.

This article originally appeared in the February 1, 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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