Labor Day – Our Obligation for Worker Safety


Today is a federal holiday in the United States, Labor Day. I know that's obvious to the 70% of you reading from the U.S., but it seemed worth pointing out to the international readers.

Labor Day became a holiday in 1894, after tragic deaths of those in organized labor at the hand of the government. From Wikipedia:

It became a federal holiday in 1894, when, following the deaths of a number of workers at the hands of the U.S. military and U.S. Marshals during the Pullman Strike, President Grover Cleveland put reconciliation with the labor movement as a top political priority. Fearing further conflict, legislation making Labor Day a national holiday was rushed through Congress unanimously and signed into law a mere six days after the end of the strike.

I'm part of the vast majority that views Labor Day as the end of summer, the start of football season, or just another day to grill out (I'll be making pizza). But it's also a day, I think, to reflect and think about those who have lost their lives in the workplace – and to think about what we need to do to prevent more workplace deaths.

A while back, I saw this news story with the headline that claimed 140,000 Chinese workers die on the job each year (numerous sources online). Some claim the number is 600,000 per year. Apple has recently taken a lot of flak for the poor conditions and the number of suicides in the factory run by Foxconn that makes Apple products, among other electronics brands.

From this piece in the UK's The Independent:

He was a typical 27-year-old worker at the gigantic Foxconn factory in Shenzen, Southern China, which manufactures i-Pads and Playstations and mobile-phone batteries.

Li was known to the company by his ID number: F3839667. He stood at a whirring line all day, every day, making the same tiny mechanical motion with his wrist, for 20p an hour. According to his family, sometimes his shifts lasted for 24 hours; sometimes they stretched to 35. If he had tried to form a free trade union to change these practices, he would have been imprisoned for 12 years. On the night of 27 May, after yet another marathon-shift, Li dropped dead.

Deaths from overwork are so common in Chinese factories that they have a word for it: guolaosi. China Daily estimates that 600,000 people are killed this way every year, mostly making goods for us. Li had never experienced any health problems, his family says, until he started this work schedule; Foxconn say he died of asthma and his death had nothing to do with them. The night Li died, yet another Foxconn worker committed suicide – the tenth this year.

As I look my iPhone and my other electronic gadgets that are a big part of my life, it makes you wonder at what price this is all worth it?

The chase for cheaper labor seems not just to be bad business (where supply chain costs and inventory expense, along with slow responsiveness to customer demand outweighs the cheap labor cost), it can also be bad for many individuals. I know the counter argument says “well, they wouldn't have any other jobs, this is a better life than they had before” but it still makes you pause and think.

Can we expect rising safety standards in China as we move forward?

We've come a long way in the U.S., but the U.S. reported 5,071 worker deaths in 2008, as this article cites.

Yet more than 5,000 workers still died on the job in 2008, and there were more than 3 million cases of nonfatal injuries reported.

How does this tie to Lean? Well, a Lean workplace should be a safe workplace. A safe workplace is the ultimate sign of having “respect for people” – and you can extend this to be not just physically safe, but psychologically safe. A safe workplace shows you're putting “first things first,” as Dr. Stephen Covey would say.

A Lean workplace is one where the culture and system encourages people to do the right thing, not to place short-term corner cutting and cost-pressures ahead of safety. Nobody accused BP of being a “lean oil company” – look at what they did to jeopardize worker safety by ignoring known safety risks. 11 workers died as a result.

How do we improve safety? It requires a lot more than putting up a bunch of signs and warnings, admonitions to be careful. As I mentioned last week, Dr. W. Edwards Deming wrote about a story where a factory offering incentives (a bonus) to workers if there were zero injuries reported. Well, there were zero injuries reported — but people were still getting hurt, but they quit reporting it! They gamed the system instead of making real improvements.

A lot of it comes down to culture, which is why I again find the story of Paul O'Neill and the amazing safety improvements that were made at Alcoa under his leadership. Steven Spear features the story of Alcoa in his excellent book The High-Velocity Edge: How Market Leaders Leverage Operational Excellence to Beat the Competition (previously known as “Chasing the Rabbit”).

Of all of the companies that outsource to China, who is going to be be the Paul O'Neill who says “Enough!” and insists on a truly safe workplace? Would that person be committing financial suicide? I'd hope not.

What do you think, on this Labor Day?

An alternative discussion thread would be about why so many unions oppose Lean, although Lean environments would:

  • Make “no layoffs due to continuous improvement” pledges
  • Engage the front-line staff in process improvement
  • Be more successful, ensuring long-term job stability
  • Practice respect for people

Are unions generally opposed to “L.A.M.E.”, not Lean?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. From Facebook:

    “Mark, I think you bring up some great points. Working for a utility, safety is paramount. We start every meeting (yes, even in HR) with a safety message, and the mentality is that workers go home in the same, if not better, shape than when they came to work. My experience (albeit brief) with multiple local unions has taught me that many union leaders have inherent distrust in company leadership for many reasons, and are resistant to change in general as they view it as the company is out to “get” them. We had a specific shift proposal last year where the local was convinced they would lose money, yet now that non-union employees are on those shifts they want in. It’s interesting to juxtapose those locals with others where we’ve sent represented employees to Black Belt training and they have an impact on changing the culture as opposed to having it change around them and simply grieving it (for the record, non represented folks are good at this, too, they just can’t grieve). Thanks for bringing this topic up!”

  2. That would be a good practice for hospitals, to start every meeting with a discussion of both worker safety AND patient safety. I was very used to that from my manufacturing days.

    Maybe some of it comes down to trust…. lean requires trust and mutual respect and if that’s lacking in a company to start with, then it’s hard to “implement lean” (to change the culture instead of just using a few tools).

  3. Another facebook comment:

    We start all of our meetings, corporate and in the field (globally), with safety. This practice has made a huge difference for our company by reducing our TRIR – Total Recordable Injury Rate and OSHA Recordables, over the past couple of years. We also have several facilities in the US who have been awarded for their safety practices.

  4. Agree. When we begin having “safety” as the very first topic at the daily 5 minute standup meetings for the leadership team and every department, our culture changed quickly. We also began noticing unexpected trends and coming up with immediate solutions – none of which effectively happened with the old “quarterly safety review” format. The impact on our safety statistics has been very positive, but perhaps just as importantly it sent a clear signal to our employees that safety is a priority.


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