Whether we realize it, risk permeates almost every aspect of our daily lives. From the moment we turn on a kitchen oven or burner, use sharp objects or work at heights doing home projects, or get in a car or on public transport to go about our day: Our physical safety is at risk. And emotional safety is equally as important if we are to exercise the courage required to speak up to family or friends when something feels off in a conversation or situation. Similarly, safety is foundational in corporate environments, especially in manufacturing facilities. Truly, one of the most enduring and difficult challenges a business — and any leader — faces is how to make safety part of its cultural fabric and everyday operations to ensure employees get home safely every day. While there are countless systems, processes and tools to ensure safe manufacturing, the power of compassionate leaders who genuinely care about their people and invest in building a strong safety culture cannot be ignored. 

Caring is the core of safety 

The most dreaded call a leader in the manufacturing space can receive is that one of his or her employees has been injured — or, worse yet, killed — on the job. Every injury, in some way, is a failure on the part of leadership. And helping people get home safely requires a leadership component that is seldom talked about: Genuinely caring about others. Just as employees look forward to getting back home to their loved ones, they must also be led by a leader and work on a team that cares about their well-being. This understanding then drives each individual to act in ways that protect their own and others’ health and safety on the job. 

Caring and safety impact desirable business outcomes 

As the CEO at Vibrantz, I remind our employees often that if we are not world class in safety then we can never be our best as a company nor achieve our vision of becoming a world-class company. An organization led by managers who truly care and a workplace that takes safety seriously can positively impact key business outcomes. Gallup’s 2023 State of the Global Workplace Report shows employees who feel like someone cares for them are more likely to show care and respect for others, creating a safer work environment for the team. This is then a strong predictor of employee retention, safety, productivity and financial performance. Gallup’s 2020 meta-analysis of its Q12 inventory shows that corporate cultures in the top quartile of their database have 64% fewer incidents versus those with lower scores. 

Media coverage of refinery operation explosions over the last some decades demonstrates the connection between caring and safety. Often cited as a key contributor to these sad and disastrous occurrences are poor safety cultures that ignore warning signs, allow or enable deficient safety management programs and/or accept the use of obsolete equipment. This “check the boxes” sort of mentality is the opposite of the care managers and leaders must demonstrate daily. And sadly, they ended in employee deaths and cost companies billions. 

Strong safety systems are key  

There is no “easy button” to push or single path to follow for a company to become world-class in safety. But leaders can impact safety performance with systems that make it hard for anyone to get hurt. 

Safety systems can be implemented immediately to drive near-term improvement and include basics like the proper personal protective equipment required to do specific jobs, properly maintained capital equipment and tools, and agreed-upon safety rules the entire organization follows. Additionally, a focus on leading indicators like safety scorecards and spot audits by environmental health and safety leaders are powerful tools to help the organization identify and report potential hazards before they become an actual incident. This is where policy implementation can also play a key role. For example, when Vibrantz’s safety performance showed a majority of incidents over a period involved hand cuts and injuries, we implemented a cutting devices policy that helped us eliminate hand injuries caused by open blades for the remainder of the year. Throughout 2023, we invested over $3.7 million in 3,400 projects to improve machine guarding to make it that much harder for any employee to get injured. 

The power of employee observations in daily work can also not be understated. We rely on employees to constantly be aware of work surroundings and notify managers of where improvements can be made. At Vibrantz, we regularly share the positive impacts of employee observations in improving safety. One employee noticed condensation droplets falling from a cold-water pipe, creating a slip hazard, and informed management so the pipes could be insulated. Another employee worked with a supplier to adjust how high they were stacking pallets so unloading was less risky for people. We also saw employees going up and down a main, wide staircase without holding one of the left or right handrails, so a center rail was installed to encourage its use. All of these seem small…until they result in injury. 

Safety culture cannot be understated 

Building a safety mindset from the inside out is long-game work but equally as important as systems. Ultimately, leaders must weave safety into the organization’s fabric such that it is a core value — in word and deed — and exhibited in a way such that employees speak up when they see something perceived as unsafe. This is where emotional safety becomes critical. Take the employee who may notice a friend at work who appears sleepy driving a forklift but chooses not to say anything to that friend or her supervisor. Often, this unwillingness to speak up is driven by an environment that has caused a perception that people will be punished or penalized if they say something. 

Culture is also heavily impacted by seemingly simple actions like leaders making safety the first item on every morning’s agenda, walking around the shop floor each day to speak to employees and observe processes, and framing “speaking up” as the truest form of demonstrating care for one another. At Vibrantz, our employees often hear us say they have not only the right, but the responsibility, to stop work if they see something unsafe. We continue to communicate that nothing employees do each day is worth them getting hurt. Vibrantz launched a safety challenge in May and June 2024, wherein over 95% of sites had zero recordables in May, and we are working toward 100% in June.  

Safety really can work from the inside out 

One of the most unexpected and memorable interactions I had in 2023 occurred shortly after Vibrantz implemented our cutting devices policy. While visiting one of our manufacturing sites, an employee shared that she had also encouraged her family to remove any unnecessary open blades at home where it made sense and gave opening packages in the mail as one example. That conversation is the epitome of what can happen when an organization commits to improving and leading safety through systems and culture in ways that also drive engagement, business results and accountability. The more our leaders care, the safer our companies can become, and the more parents, siblings and spouses get home to those who need them most. 

D. Michael Wilson

President and Chief Executive Officer

D. Michael Wilson

President and Chief Executive Officer

Prior to Vibrantz, Wilson joined Prince International Corporation as president and CEO in 2020. He has more than 25 years of executive leadership experience and a track record of success across multiple global businesses in the specialty chemicals space.

Before Prince, Wilson served as president and CEO at Ingevity from 2015 to 2020. Prior to that, he was executive vice president and president of Performance Chemicals at Albemarle Corporation from 2013 to 2015. From 1997 to 2013, Wilson held executive roles with FMC Corporation, including executive vice president and president of the Specialty Chemicals group, corporate vice president and general manager of the Industrial Chemicals group, and division manager for the Lithium division.

Wilson received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.