Instead of taking a sprawling corner office when he joined the company, former Alcoa Inc. CEO, Paul O’Neill, settled into his new role by taking his place in a cubicle. This wasn’t the only untraditional move O’Neill made as CEO of the aluminum giant.

Unlike other CEOs, O’Neill didn’t place profit or sales on the top of his agenda.  Instead, he made safety his top priority and mission, saying that in order to be considered a world-class company; it first had to become the safest. His goal was to see that no employee was injured in the workplace. In 1987, when O’Neill joined Alcoa, the company’s rate of time lost due to employee injuries was one-third the U.S. average. Today, the time lost due to injury is less than one twentieth of the average and profits of the company broke records upon O’Neill’s retirement at $1.5 billion on sales of $22.9 billion. Today, Alcoa holds itself to the same standards and saw revenue increase to $6.4 billion in 2011.

Companies like Alcoa are no longer making safety a priority, but a value. Many of these same companies already have in place robust safety procedures and practices and have industry leading performances to match. That said, a growing number are looking for the next opportunity to move beyond plateaued safety performance, which for many is at or below a total injury recordable rate of 1.0 per 200,000 hours worked.

Take the DuPont Spruance plant in Richmond, Virginia. Since the 1960s, this plant has been producing Nomex, a flame-resistant meta-aramid fiber that is employed as a dielectric insulator for high temperatures. The plant is DuPont’s largest manufacturing site by employment and capital investment. The 550-acre plant, located on the James River, is the global headquarters for one of DuPont’s fastest-growing businesses, DuPont Protection Technologies.

The Nomex business at the plant has a great track record of growth and improvement over the last decade. Last year, its safety performance was considered better than the DuPont corporate average. But plant management wanted more – they were looking for something to take them to the next level of safety management. They wanted to ensure that plant operations didn’t get stale and stagnate.

A New Approach to Safety

Companies can and should look for a renewed approach to safety. With more than 210 years of experience as an owner/operator, DuPont continues to evolve its safety practices with a commitment to  achieving zero workplace injuries and illnesses. Most recently, the company introduced the DuPont Integrated Approach (DnA) for Safety– a methodology designed to facilitate organizational transformation through the individual. Its basis is a “below-the-waterline view” of people’s values, attitudes and unobservable beliefs, in addition to their observable actions and behaviors. For companies that find themselves in a safety plateau, DnA offers a way to go beyond traditional programs by integrating behavioral, social and cognitive science as a means of more effectively influencing individuals’ values and, ultimately their behaviors.

Behavior-based safety programs and other traditional methods for managing workplace safety rely on clear expectations, an observation process, and feedback. This approach places emphasis on compliance and is dependent upon an observation / feedback process. What it doesn’t address, however, is why behaviors change in the absence of an authoritative figure or when employees leave the workplace. What is needed is an approach that drives not only compliant behaviors, but individual commitment. No one plans to go to work and injure themselves and yet, despite all the procedural and behavioral reinforcement measures in today’s workplace, accidents still happen. Companies should not accept these as “human error” and move forward with business as usual.