Performance Vs. Safety

By Bryan McWhorter
Last updated: October 20, 2019
Key Takeaways

Safety must always come before performance.

Last week I was visiting with some friends and the topic of work safety came up. They know that's how I earn a living and wanted to pick my brain on the topic.


They all had office jobs and could not understand why anyone would put themselves at risk for a paycheck.

I explained that we are all performance-driven and risk brings rewards. It's natural for us to take risks, but it's not natural to think about safety.


Conflicting Work Goals

It is common to have conflicting work goals, such as cost versus quality. In manufacturing operations, the top key performance indicators that drive all activities are:

  1. Safety
  2. Cost
  3. Quality
  4. Delivery

Many companies make a point to list safety as number one. This is because they understand two key points:

  1. We are performance-driven and will take risks to achieve set work goals
  2. Working safely is a skill that must be valued and taught – it doesn't come naturally to us

If our ancestors had to bring down a woolly mammoth with rocks and spears, they did it. That reinforced our risk-for-reward mindset. Facing danger was better than starving to death (and woolly mammoth clothing was totally in fashion).

At a young age, we learn that risk brings rewards. We admire the athlete that stays in the game despite being injured.

If you played high school football, you heard your coaches say things like: “Blood makes the grass grow,” “Women dig scars,” and “Pain is temporary, but victory lasts forever!” If you do get hurt, you will be told to “Walk it off, Buttercup.”


I have never heard a football coach say, “Get out there and play safe.”

It is natural for us to take risks for achieving goals; it is taught to us and reinforced as we grow. Performance overshadows safety.

(See Why Is Safety a Bad Word? for related reading.)

I Won’t Get Hurt

I made it this far in life, what are the odds I will have a serious injury or end my life today? We don’t want to live in fear of injury or death. That would be terrible. Rather than worry about such tragedies, our minds protect us by giving us a sense of security. This is normally a good thing, but when we take risks to achieve goals It becomes a false sense of security. We place ourselves in danger and do not recognize it.

We may:

  • Skip protocols for working in confined spaces
  • Decide not to wear our harness (just this once) while working at an elevated height
  • Work on the manufacturing equipment with the guard off to decrease downtime
  • Skip safety control measures to drive performance and show we can git-r-done

In any work environment, we deal with two main assets that drive success in all we do: people and processes.

Processes are what enables success (like following a chocolate chip cookie recipe – the recipe is the process we use). Processes serve people by enabling success, and they must include safety.

(Find out How to Use Standard Work Instructions to Improve Safety.)

Safety Performance

We are performance-motivated. Everyone wants to be successful at work. When we achieve goals, our brain rewards us with dopamine and we feel good about ourselves. However, if workers are placed at risk for performance, they are devalued and feel expendable. Dopamine is replaced with cortisol and anxiety is elevated.

Safety must be the number one key performance indicator. Work safety programs protect your greatest asset: your employees. Employees are valued only when their safety is the number one KPI. Valued employees will storm the gates of hell for managers that protect them. (But they will do it safely and wearing the proper PPE.)

When safety vs. performance dilemmas arise, safety must win out. Valued employees are engaged employees. When I see companies put people and safety first, not only do they improve safety but all their performance goals typically improve as well.

(Learn Why Worker Engagement Is Key to Data Capture and Tracking Safety KPIs.)

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Written by Bryan McWhorter | Lead Safety Advisor, Author, Writer, Speaker

Bryan McWhorter

Bryan McWhorter is a safety professional with eight years of experience in driving and teaching safety. Bryan gained his knowledge and experience as the safety officer and Senior Trainer for Philips Lighting. Philips is a strong health and well-being company that promotes a safety first culture.

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