workers at plant

Lessons Learned from Mining, Refining and the Cleveland Browns

By Josh Williams, Ph.D

How many times have you seen a sign that says: “XX days since our last injury”? Or a pizza party, awards, or bonuses for no injuries? These celebrations are commonplace at businesses across the world. The original purpose of celebrating a lack of injuries is that it seemingly demonstrates that we kept our employees safe and to keep it up! It is an admirable and noteworthy accomplishment to keep employees safe for a whole year, or even years. However, there is an unintended consequence that has a tendency to rear its ugly head when this is our only form of recognition for safety.

Mining Safety Consider this:

The new Browns head coach will be their seventh hired since 2008. They’ve also had 21 different starting quarterbacks during this time. Contrast that with the New England Patriots who’ve had 1 coach and 1 starting quarterback (five others have played due to injury) since the turn of the century. They’ve also won 5 Super Bowl Championships. This provides several key reminders: 1) change is not always good, 2) quick fixes are an illusion, and 3) moving from one “flavor of the month” to another is frivolous and potentially damaging.

All organizations, from professional football teams to energy companies, need to be careful and mindful when approaching change. Strong organizations are always striving for continuous improvement. Smart ones do it in thoughtful, systematic ways. Culture change is not easy. It takes time, hard work, discipline and patience.

Here are some general recommendations to consider before embarking on large-scale organizational change.

1. Begin With the End in Mind.

Stephen Covey encouraged readers to picture their funeral and consider what they should have done differently in their lives.1 This maudlin exercise is designed to remind us to consider big picture themes, and not just short-term objectives, when charting our lives. Organizational leaders should do the same.

As an example, when Cynthia Carroll became the CEO of Anglo American Mining she inherited monumental safety problems. Her company had suffered nearly 200 fatalities in five years. Worse, many company leaders and miners doing the work believed this was simply the cost of doing business in a dangerous industry.

Rather than accept this, she immediately and indefinitely shut down the world’s largest platinum mine that employed nearly 90,000 South African employees.2  Such a shutdown had never been done before and was met with extreme resistance (including the resignation of the CEO for that mine). Carroll then established a working group with industry executives, government officials, and labor leaders to set an agenda for real change. They toured mines on four continents, studied world-wide best practices in safety, and visited industrial operations outside the mining sector. This helped establish robust safety programs and extensive safety training for employees at all organizational levels once mining operations resumed. The result: a 50% reduction in lost time injuries and a 62% decrease in fatalities.

By ignoring conventional wisdom and absorbing tremendous (initial) financial losses, Carroll was able to make lasting changes to save people’s lives. Beginning with the end in mind helps organizational leaders make important and often difficult decisions for the long-term benefit of the organization.

2. Incorporate Safety as Who We Are – Not Something We Do.

Safety is important to everyone. Executives certainly don’t want employees to get seriously hurt or killed. They also don’t want safety incidents marring the company’s reputation and hurting the financial bottom line. And employees clearly don’t want themselves or coworkers to be hurt or killed on the job. Despite this, “safety” is often viewed as an external element to managed and, in many cases, a hassle.

An example of integrating safety into all operations is seen with Jim Gallogly, current president of the University of Oklahoma and former CEO of LyondellBasell (one of the largest chemical/refining companies in the world). He was hired in 2009 to return the bankrupt corporation back to profitability. However, in his first meeting with employees, he stressed his absolute commitment to keeping everyone safe and didn’t mention the company’s financial challenges. He took further steps to promote safety by (among other things) providing a report of the firm’s safety performance in every earnings meeting and withholding bonuses to managers for any serious incidents. In addition to bringing his company back to profitability, he demonstrated an early, unwavering commitment to safety excellence during extreme economic distress.

Integrating safety as part of “who we are” instead of “something we do” is critical. A recent study using both objective and subjective data from 19 manufacturing companies found3:

“As safety deteriorates, product quality and plant performance, based on internal and external measures, suffers. There is more scrap, more rework, and employees are less involved. Such outcomes are in line with the core concepts of total quality management which would suggest that employees who do not feel safe in their jobs are not likely to do their jobs well…. Safety and operating performance measures should be viewed as in concert with each rather than as competing entities.”3

3. Use Positive Means to Engage Employees.

Too many organizational leaders use old-school, fear-based, stress-inducing means to try and push employees to perform better. In reality, it does just the opposite.

Recent estimates from the American Psychological Association conclude (4):

  • High stress organizations have 50% higher health care expenditures.
  • Workplace stress causes the loss of 550 million work days and 500 billion dollars.
  • Stress contributes to 60%-80% of workplace incidents.
  • Workplace stress increases turnover rates by 50%.

Neuroscience research shows that increasing stress levels leads to the release of cortisol and the inhibition of dopamine which results in a host of cognitive problems including decreased brain volume in adults.5 Stress causes impaired decision-making, judgment, attention, and memory along with increased risk-taking behavior.6

Giving employees realistic goals, autonomy over their work, and more voice in their own operations lowers stress and fosters trust. Promoting more communication, building relationships, encouraging personal growth, and showing vulnerability also improves trust and decreases stress levels. Leaders are well served to use positive means to encourage employee engagement and motivate safe performance.


These broad recommendations should be the starting point to guide more specific organizational change efforts. We partner with clients to incorporate these themes into practical, long-term, and evidenced-based solutions to drive an ideal safe production culture. And lessons can be learned from the Cleveland Browns. Look to the future to get better…but proceed with caution before initiating quick fix solutions. Long-term organizational improvement requires strategic, systematic planning and execution. And a lot of hard work.


1. Covey, S. (2004). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change. New York: Simon & Schuster.
2. Carroll, C. (2014). Moving to a safety culture in mining. Harvard Business Review online.
3. Michaels, D. (2018). 7 ways to improve operations without sacrificing worker safety. Harvard Business Review online.
4. Seppala, E. & Cameron, K. (2015). Proof that positive work cultures are more productive. Harvard Business Review online.
5. Porter, J. (2015). How stress shrinks our brains and what to do about it. Fast Company online.
6. Elliott, V. (2015). Social neuroscience – the brains behind positive safety culture. The Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy Bulletin online.
7. Levin, M. (2018). 8 ways to build a culture of trust based on Harvard’s neuroscience research. Inc online.

At Propulo Consulting, we understand that “magic bullets” are a myth. We work hand-in-hand with organizations to drive practical, long-term business improvements. We’d love to discuss our innovative ‘People Meet Process’ approach and how we might be able to help you.


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