Occupational safety – No longer just “nice to have”

Publish Date

24 JUN 2022


Kai Beckmann


Nothing is more important than ensuring that our employees return home safe and sound every day. As a member of the Executive Board of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, I take this responsibility very seriously.

Why? Because it’s my duty to provide employees with the resources they need to prevent injuries and incidents. Yet within a company, everyone must commit to occupational safety in order to be successful.

To put it clearly: in the hotly contested markets most companies operate in, only those who put safety at the heart of their efforts will prevail.

Safety at the workplace: A moral imperative

First things first: The safety of our employees is a moral imperative, an expected behavior and a mindset that we ethically embrace.

Meanwhile, it’s also undisputed that occupational safety influences the success of a company. Various studies use Return on Prevention (RoP) as an indicator. It determines to what extent investments in occupational health and safety pay off. In most studies, RoP is above a factor of two, i.e. for every Euro invested in occupational safety, the company gets more than two Euros back. The reason for this is obvious. Accidents at the workplace often lead to downtime, especially in production. The delivery of goods is delayed, which can lead to dissatisfied customers and lost sales.

Irrespective of this, workplace accidents also have a negative impact on a company’s image and reputation, especially if the number of accidents is noticeably higher than the industry average or if there are serious incidents – possibly even high-profile ones. Who would want to work for a company that obviously places little value on the safety and health of its employees? Who would want to have this company as a supplier or buy its goods? The damage to the company’s image is difficult to quantify, but in the worst case it can become a real threat.

So, if the number of workplace accidents is systematically reduced through appropriate measures, it’s a win-win situation for employees and companies.

Occupational safety starts in the mind

It sounds downright trivial, but every employee must return home from work safe and sound. Yet this is about much more than just meeting some KPIs. It’s about the physical and mental well-being of every employee – the colleague with whom you’re working on a joint project or the colleague with whom you regularly enjoy your coffee break.

Occupational safety is therefore fundamentally everyone’s business. However, getting health and safety issues into the minds of all employees is a challenge. Although I am convinced that everyone wants to be safe and is therefore willing to adopt safe work practices, companies need to empower their employees to do so. This is easier said than done. Why? Because often the challenge for managers is to get employees to understand that deadlines or competing priorities should not interfere with safety.

That’s why “stop the job” is an important element of the safety culture program in our company. If colleagues notice risky behavior or dangerous situations, they should intervene, ask questions, and pause the activity – no matter how high the work pressure is in that moment.

In this way, everyone can contribute to making sites safer globally – without administrative or bureaucratic effort. We are going one step further with “Spot,” a four-legged autonomous robot that takes over control rounds at the Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany headquarters and reads data with its cameras and sensors. We are one of the first companies in Europe to test Spot. The project provides important data on the application possibilities of autonomous robotics as well as the efficiency and reliability of remotely monitored missions in industrial plants. In a pilot project with Boston Dynamics, the manufacturer of the robot, and Energy Robotics, a Technical University of Darmstadt start-up that supplies the smart control software, Spot is demonstrating all its abilities.

In the future, these and similar types of autonomous robots will also be able to take over tasks that are too dangerous for employees, thus minimizing risks.

Walk the talk – from the CEO to the shop floor

We will only be truly successful if everyone in the company continuously works on and maintains a “safety culture”. This can only succeed if everyone takes responsibility and behaves in accordance with the rules – even when no one is looking.

Of course, this is where managers in particular are called upon to Walk the talk and let actions speak! Employees are very perceptive and know when we mean what we say. We therefore need to be sincere and clear, communicating that safety is important to us and that we are willing to put it above efficiency. This is a process that needs to be called to mind over and over again. Communication must therefore be consistent, from the CEO to the shop floor.

Safety is important for our employees and their families. It’s important for our customers, for owners, shareholders and all stakeholders. We must be aware that safety is the first and most fundamental responsibility that each of us has to bear. Therefore, it must always be a central part of who we are and what we do.

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