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Former Alcoa CEO Paul O'Neill Demonstrates the Value of Safety in Manufacturing

Driven by the philosophy that putting profits over people is "always a stupid idea," former Alcoa CEO Paul O'Neill proved that a lasting commitment to workplace safety must start at the top.

Former Alcoa CEO Paul O'Neill believes that an injury-free workplace "is a precondition – not a priority."

"It's like breathing: You can't do much else if you don't remember to breathe pretty frequently," O'Neill said during a keynote address at the 2013 National Safety Congress and Expo in Chicago. "And we should have the same attitude toward the safety of our workforce."

As the CEO of Alcoa, O'Neill put his money where his mouth was. When the company's legal counsel fretted that displaying the names of injured employees would embolden tort lawyers "to sue the hell out of us," O'Neill pledged to pay any damages out of his own pocket.

"In the 13 years I was there, there never was a lawsuit," O'Neill said.

During his 13-year tenure, Alcoa's lost-workday rate dropped from 1.86 to 0.23, while its market value ballooned from $3 billion in 1986 to $27.5 billion in 2000. (As of Oct. 2, the company's lost-workday rate for 2013 stood at 0.085, according to Alcoa's website.)

The company's safety and financial success under O'Neill served to undermine the longstanding assumption that injuries and accidents were inevitable byproducts of the quest for profits.

"People confused the idea that customers and production were the most important thing with the idea that workers had to put themselves at risk for the greater good of the company," O'Neill said. "It was always a stupid idea. But it took a while to get people to believe that it was neither right nor necessary."

For more, read "NSC 2013: O'Neill Exemplifies Safety Leadership" in sister publication EHS Today. 

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