RIP Paul O’Neill: Safety Champion

Paul O’Neill

By Josh Williams, Ph.D.

The world lost a great safety champion last week in former Treasury Secretary and Alcoa Chairman and CEO Paul O’Neill. O’Neill was a fierce advocate of employee safety and took big risks (and won!) going “all in” on injury prevention. He took the bold step of saying there were no budget constraints for safety at Alcoa, even if that meant lost revenue and an unhappy Board of Directors.
O’Neill famously stated, “I was prepared to accept the consequences of spending whatever it took to become the safest company in the world.”1 He told staff that there was no budget cap for safety and that leaders would be fired if they talked about the cost of injuries to employees. He simply didn’t want to send the wrong message that money trumped caring about people.

He took a systematic approach to improving safety beyond, in his words, “cheerleading” and “bludgeoning” employees. This includes being an early adopter of creating a “learning environment” where incidents, even minor ones, were thoroughly investigated to make system changes and prevent them in the future. He refused to believe that injuries were inevitable even in the dangerous world of aluminum fabrication and production.2 O’Neill was also a proponent of what is now called a “just culture” where employees were not blamed following incidents. He did fire leaders who tried to hide injuries.

He also set up task forces to systematically assess injuries and made sure leaders shared lessons learned following incidents in corporate meetings. O’Neill also provided leaders with stacks of data-driven, mandatory reading material to increase personal ownership for safety. Basically, O’Neill put the onus on leaders to create and champion a safe production culture.

Putting people over profits paid off. Injuries dropped 85% during his tenure at Alcoa and market value rose from $3 billion to more than $27 billion. O’Neill was convinced safety and profit were closely related.3 He viewed safety as an investment instead of a cost…as was proven right. This values first philosophy paid dividends and helped propel him into one of the highest offices in the land under President Bush. Three of his main tenants of executive leadership included:1
1. Employees should be treated with dignity and respect by all.
2. Employees should be given the tools they need to support the organization and find meaning in their work and lives.
3. They should be noticed for doing so.

Conscientious CEOs support safety and make it a business priority. Unfortunately, priorities change. Values do not. Paul O’Neill made safety commitment a “moral imperative” regardless of economic impact. But a funny thing happened. Profits soared as injuries plummeted. It turns out, safety can also be a driver of business success.


At Propulo, we understand that safety commitment fuels organizational success. We can help you improve discretionary effort in your organizations to improve safety performance and business excellence.

1. https://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/paul-o-neill-values-into-action
2. https://www.npr.org/2020/04/18/837917748/former-treasury-secretary-paul-oneill-dies-at-84
3. https://www.forbes.com/sites/howardgleckman/2020/04/22/remembering-paul-oneill/#f7b4b38beaca