A company will kill as many as it can

Apologies for the mildly melodramatic title to this post, but having worked all over the world for almost 2 decades now, it is the only conclusion I can come to. Allow me to explain.

Death should be more expensive than prevention

Business is business. Commercial companies exist to make money. This involves looking at your income and your costs and finding ways to make the difference between the two as big as possible. In some countries death is expensive, in other countries life is cheap. Should it be any surprise that there is a direct correlation between the price of a life and industrial fatality levels? The ship yards on the Clyde in the 1950s used to budget for a fatality per £800k of contract. That was viewed as acceptable. Less was a bonus, more was a problem but, on an £8m job, if they lost 10, it was seen as OK. These days it isn’t. Kill 10 people and your company is in big trouble with the authorities. Not just that but the cost of litigation driven by the lawyers acting on behalf of the bereaved will involve eye-watering sums. So, surprise surprise, the remaining UK shipbuilders have found ways to kill far fewer people.

It may look different, but it’s the same

It’s easy to pass judgement on developing countries like Pakistan when we hear stories of 300 people killed in a factory that makes denim jeans. Sure it wouldn’t happen in the west – but it’s not so long ago that it might have. It is quite wrong to look at stories like this and pass moral judgement. The real reason why this happens in some countries and not others is down to consequences. Therefore we should not be distracted by moral arguments when trying to work out how this can get better. It will get better country by country in exactly the same way as it got better in the west, by making death expensive.

Given 2 choices, a commercial company will favour the more cost effective. When prevention becomes cheaper than compensation, this becomes the policy of choice. It really is that simple.


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5 Responses to A company will kill as many as it can

  1. Shaun, I do not accept that all companies choose the more cost-effective solution when it comes to the safety of employees. I believe there are companies that choose the morally correct approach of preventing injuries and fatalities and use it as a fundamental cornerstone of the organization’s culture and approach to business.
    I know a factory manager who had a fatality at his site and the emotional impact across the whole site was huge and long lasting.
    I too have witnessed examples where life appears to be regarded as cheap but I think it’s wrong to tar every organization with that brush.

    The worst example of a “life is cheap” approach was about 25 years ago at a South American factory I visited with two UK engineers. One of the engineers highlighted a huge safty risk duringthe loading of materials onto a machine which could easily result in the operator having their hand crushed. The process was automated in the UK. When the area manager was asked what he’d do if the operator got his hand crushed he replied “It’s Ok, we can replace him very quickly”
    The shock of that response lives with me today and permanently altered my approach to the safety of me and my fellow colleagues.

  2. Shaun says:

    Thanks for taking the time to comment and share your thoughts and experiences, Richard.

    I know there are companies out there that take their responsibilities seriously, Richard. Things have improved in the west in the last 30 years, there is no question. In better companies maybe even the original reason for the improvement has now been lost as a mature culture has taken it on itself to look after its employees. My point is that we would never have gotten to this point if death in the west was still cheap. It was not so very long ago that attitudes like the one you recounted in South Africa were prevalent here. Two generations maybe. You must excuse the headlines that I occasionally use to make a dramatic point. I am not suggesting that every company now actively seeks to calculate how many it can kill and sets it as a tolerable target, but I don’t think we’d have got to this state of maturity on morality alone. The reduction in fatalities country by country mirrors the increase in the cost of death just too well and too conveniently for me to look at it any other way. Thanks once again for contributing.


  3. Shaun, for sure I was talking about the attitude of today for so called western or developed organizations. I do recognize that attitudes even a generation ago were not good. Probably in the very early 90’s I talked with someone from a western-world steel production site where about 10,000 employees and contractors worked. They averaged a fatality a year and the guy thought this was quite good odds of him not getting hurt.

  4. David Hoyle says:

    Shaun I guess had the sixth commandment said, ‘thou shalt not kill’ it would have turned out differently. Only if the penalty of failure impacts profits will the business owners sit up and take notice. However, some business owners are only interested in short term profits, they sell and move on when they have got a fair return on their investment. Those owners in it for the long term will have a different attitude and will recognize that anything that can harm reputation has to be avoided and industrial accidents harm reputation but it is a game of probabilities and the probabilities have to be low for them to get insurance and in the UK they have to have insurance. Perhaps the same is not true in Pakistan

  5. Shaun says:

    I’m not sure how many companies would look if we were to assess them against the 10 commandments, David. But money does make the world go round, and the economic equation of reward vs expenditure can be used to boil down most arguments, and explain most choices of action in my experience

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