Safety at work
Average read time: 18 minutes
We want to grow our business responsibly. That means safety is not negotiable – it’s our number one priority.
Safety is about people
Facts and figures are important for measuring safety and driving progress. But they don’t tell the full story.
We believe every single employee should have the right to be able to live and work free from the risk of injuries and accidents.
We have a responsibility to our 149,000 employees, to all the people we work with and to our local communities around the world.
To build a true safety culture, accountable leadership and a strong policy framework are critical. A bottom-up approach is also important – we all rely on everyone to look out for each other. This underpins our safety mission.
Safety is and must be the first leadership value of every organisation. Caring about your people, and ensuring their wellbeing, is the foundation of what it means to be a sustainable business.Olivier Carnet, Head of Supply Chain Excellence and Transformational Capabilities
Safety: a human right at the heart of our business
Health and safety is one of our eight salient human rights issues. Our Code of Business Principles (PDF 8.52MB) Opens in new window commits us to provide safe and healthy working conditions for all our employees. And our Code Policy on Occupational Health and Safety spells out what employees must – and must not – do to ‘live the Code’.
Our Safety Mission
Through authentic leadership, to build an interdependent safety culture that protects the wellbeing of our employees, visitors, contractors and assets, and delivers on responsible growth.
As our Safety Mission makes clear, we’re committed to improving safety throughout our value chain.
Our work with suppliers to improve safety standards can be found in our Human Rights Report 2020 (PDF 7.13MB) Opens in new window and Human rights in our extended value chain.
In our own operations, we aim for Vision Zero, which underpins everything we do as a business.
Our Vision Zero
Our Vision Zero aims for:
- zero fatalities
- zero injuries
- zero motor vehicle accident
- zero process incidents
- zero tolerance of unsafe behaviour and practices
Keeping our people safe during the pandemic
Shortly after the World Health Organization (WHO) announced Covid-19 as a pandemic, we rapidly introduced a set of measures to support global and national efforts to help tackle its spread. Our first priority was to keep our people safe, and to keep our factories running to supply essential hygiene products such as soap and bleach.
We prioritised action in each country according to the status of the virus. We put role-specific measures in place to protect the safety of our people in the various environments in which we work (such as labs, factories, retail stores and offices, and in field sales). These safety measures are captured in our tier management system, and every tier requires us to take different measures. The rate of infection in a country, the WHO reported status and medical and public factors are used to guide the precautions we take at each site.
Our efforts to keep our workforce safe throughout the pandemic have guided our return to workplace strategy for the rest of our people following lockdowns. A key element is implementing a 21-day period from announcing the reopening of a site until actual opening. This gives our teams time to prepare our buildings by deep cleaning, adding new signage and so on. We also continue monitoring the virus and will move the site back to a higher tier if Rate of infection (R) numbers are rising in a country.
We published a Supply Partner Support page on Unilever.com to share our response to Covid-19 with our suppliers. It details our latest protocols for factory operations and personal protective equipment as well as brand communication materials and latest news so we can share best practice.
Our Global Incident Management Team (GIMT) is continuously working with the latest medical thinking and leading public health authorities to ensure our approach to Covid-19 remains effective in protecting the lives and livelihoods of our people and communities.
Accountable, responsible, visible – our approach to leadership
Our commitment to safety comes from the most senior levels in our organisation. Ultimately, our Unilever Leadership Executive (ULE) is responsible for safety.
Our Chief Supply Chain Officer, Marc Engel, is a member of the ULE. He makes sure that safety is championed as a regular part of the ULE agenda.
Our Board’s Corporate Responsibility Committee also prioritises safety. It reviews our safety progress scorecard at each meeting, tracks our Covid-19 protocols and actions, and engages regularly with our safety leaders. This strengthens our safety culture across the organisation.
Helping our leaders ‘walk the talk’
Training helps to embed our safety culture. We run a mandatory safety training programme for all Unilever leaders who manage a team.
We also train our country-level Board members using our interactive behaviour-based safety programme, the Executive Leadership Workshop.
We’ve developed a robust integration process for our newly acquired businesses across the world. When we acquire a business, we need to make sure that its leaders are aligned with our safety principles as a vital part of integrating them into Unilever.
We continue to engage with new companies, helping them in the implementation of our safety roadmaps. The most senior leaders locally are now made accountable for overall business integration.
Training for everyone, no matter what their role
Our safety training is based on clear policies and standards. We have a portfolio of over 60 e-learning modules, which cater to different target groups.
For factory employees, safety training starts before they even begin their job. In 2020, we relaunched safety assessments for factory leaders. And in 2021, we’re introducing a revised assessment tool for SHE professionals within Unilever.
For all new non-factory employees, we have mandatory on-boarding safety training. Each new employee receives a personalised ‘Action Required’ welcome note, and training must be completed within 30 days of joining. Our behaviour-based programme is designed to build knowledge and ensure that all employees are committed to helping achieve Vision Zero.
Our safety framework is based on our Health and Safety Policy and a wide range of Mandatory Standards that align with the international standard OHSAS 18001. These guide our management systems, supported by Best Practice Guidelines that address individual aspects of health and safety. All standards and guidelines are available to all through our intranet.
Local SHE teams are supported by our senior health and safety professionals, who meet regularly as the Unilever Group Safety and Health Leadership Team. Their role is to:
- advise the leadership team on areas of focus and support improvement projects
- review progress against targets and recommend remedial actions
- follow up on serious incidents and ensure lessons learnt are shared and adopted
- share best practice globally.
Safer behaviour, safer people
Our standards, programmes and technology all help to increase people’s safety. However, behaviour is another important factor. That’s why our World Class Manufacturing Programme includes a focus on behaviour-based safety.
World Class Manufacturing Programme
This is our system for continuous improvement at our manufacturing sites. It’s implemented through a structured, step-by-step approach that engages employees and promotes positive behaviours.
Sites develop individual plans that drive improvement based on their particular challenges. The safety focus is helping to build a strong and interdependent safety culture across all levels of our organisation.
As a result of our World Class Manufacturing Programme, our ‘mature’ (most advanced) sites have reduced accidents by around a third. Sites running our foundation programme reduced accidents by 30%. Our leadership team receives mandatory training on the importance of World Class Manufacturing Programme. And we remind our employees that we’re all responsible for each other’s safety, whether in a factory, office or elsewhere.
How we’re tackling process safety
Process safety is how we control hazardous processes and help prevent incidents with potentially severe consequences. It brings together expertise from our safety teams, engineering, supply chain and technical groups as we apply good design principles, engineering and operating practices from the very beginning of a project.
In 2020, we saw an 8% reduction in process safety incidents, including no severe ‘category one’ incidents.
Our electronic management of change system brought enhanced risk analysis and controls to process safety projects. And the measures we took to help combat Covid-19 were tailored to mitigate parallel risks from process safety incidents. Using virtual analysis and audits helped to maintain compliance and assurance. We will continue to use digital tools to maintain best-in-class safety oversight and control at our facilities.
Celebrating best practice in safety
Our Annual Global Safety Awards celebrate the outstanding work of our teams around the world to build a positive safety culture. The awards cover six categories, including safety in our factories, logistics, offices and other centres, as well as construction site safety, process safety and safe travel in vehicles.
Our overall winner in 2020 was our Sei Mangkei Oleochemicals process plant in Indonesia. The team built a robust safety culture, resulting in zero process safety incidents between 2017 and 2020.
This was the result of an investment in training and empowering employees at every level to ensure a safety mindset. The team engaged with external safety experts and proactively organised regular site audits to ensure continuous improvement.
And it’s not just Unilever who has recognised the team at Sei Mangkei – the site was awarded the Zero Incident Award from the Indonesian government.
We continue to work on improving safety for the people who work with machinery in our operations. This includes injuries caused when limbs, particularly hands, get caught in machines.
While we continue to reduce these machinery injuries year-on-year, our progress slowed in 2020 when 32 people suffered from this type of injury.
To combat this, we’re equipping employees with the ability to identify hazards and assess their risks. This makes safety more personal and builds greater individual accountability for it.
We ensure that any new machinery arriving at our sites is ‘safe by design’ – and we’re working with vendors and industry experts to assess existing machinery safety risks and identify improvements.
We also developed new safety standards, guidelines and e-learning. And we ran virtual trainings to prepare people for working with new technology, robotics and automation.
Making the roads safer for us and others
The current pandemic is seeing our business having to react swiftly to emerging needs. Managing the demand for essential health, hygiene and nutritional goods during Covid-19 has not only meant pivoting and scaling up production, it has also put our fleet of drivers at the forefront of action to deliver these essential goods.
Our Safe Travel in Vehicles Standard helps us to ensure our employees driving for work stay safe when they are behind the wheel – as well as protect other drivers and pedestrians. This sets out our mandatory requirements for all our organisations. It covers areas such as leadership, planning, driver requirements, vehicle operation, performance monitoring, reward and recognition, and disciplinary procedures.
Our Standard is supported by our Safe Travel Roadmap and other guidance documents. These are designed to help drivers and line managers understand and apply our Safe Travel requirements in their daily work.
We continue to issue global guidance to support road safety. Some countries issued specific guidance around practical Defensive Driving training and hygiene requirements to minimise risk of Covid transmission between the driver and the instructor.
We set rules for third-party operators who run ‘mass transportation’ services for our employees – for example, driving them to and from our sites. These services must meet the same stringent safety standards as our own drivers. We make clear that people must not walk in the aisle while the buses are moving. And in response to a fatality in India involving a bus, we also introduced the ‘bus marshalling’ concept, which involves an employee volunteering to act as a safety champion on each shuttle bus.
Informed by external benchmarking, we introduced head restraints and anti-lock braking system into minimum vehicle specifications for all cars used on business across the world. This also applies for our ‘grey fleet’, which are personal vehicles used for business.
Road Mode: preventing phone use while driving
Mobile phone use is one of the leading causes of vehicle accidents worldwide. Our mandatory global ban on the use of hand-held and hands-free phones while driving is a key element of our Safe Travel programme.
We introduced this ban with an extensive communications campaign in 2015. In 2020, as in 2019, there was no recordable serious injury where use of a mobile phone was found to be a contributing factor.
Together, our standards, programmes and technology are leading to improvements in road safety. Between 2016 and 2020, road-related collisions resulting in employee injuries decreased by 73%. This has reinforced our view that staying focused and consistently implementing programmes is key to good performance.
73% Decrease in road-related collisions resulting in employee injuries 2016−2020
Construction and contractor safety
Keeping people safe during construction of all kinds is vital. In 2014, we began collecting data specifically related to contractor safety (for those who work on our sites under the direct supervision of their own management).
90% Reduction in contractors’ recordable injuries in 2020
Contractors’ recordable injuries are measured by Total Recordable Frequency Rate (TRFR). In 2020, we saw a 90% improvement in our construction TRFR against 2019. This is despite completing more than 18.1 million work hours in construction activities worldwide.
How did we achieve this?
Firstly, through the expansion of our Construction Safety Operations Group and training project managers to become safety leaders.
Secondly, by developing and rolling out virtual training and audit programmes for project support. This included a Construction Safety Field Guide, which was developed with frontline workers in mind. The guide is visually-led so that it can be easily understood by everyone, no matter what language people speak, providing clear instructions on safe work practices. It is now being used across multiple projects.
We established a Fire Risk Safety Team (FiRST) in 2019, comprising safety, engineering and risk experts. Since then, fire incidents have reduced by 40%, with just a single category one (most severe) event reported.
Overall adherence to International Fire Code standards, partnership with third-party providers and enhanced risk assessments enabled this improvement.
But we know there’s more to do. We’re carrying out even more work to make sure our operational and design standards are in line with all globally accepted standards (NFPA, IFC and FM Global).
In 2021, we’re introducing a team of experts and a governance structure to support Fire Risk, Response and Engineering in embedding these standards and practices deeper into our organisation.
Understanding the consequences
If employees break safety rules, this needs to be dealt with fairly and objectively. Our countries have consequence management policies. These are in line with local legislation and frameworks. We can take a range of disciplinary actions against those responsible for poor safety oversight – including dismissal in the most serious cases.
We’ve stepped up our enforcement of these policies. We want to make sure leaders understand their accountability when serious incidents happen because our policies and standards have not been implemented.
Our safety performance in 2020
We report safety data from 1 October to 30 September. Our key metric is Total Recordable Frequency Rate (TRFR) which measures the number of recordable accidents per million hours worked. Our TRFR ending 30 September 2020 improved to 0.63 accidents per million hours worked, from 0.76˄ in 2019. This was in part due to a reduction in non-manufacturing accidents on Unilever sites due to the increase in homeworking.
0.63 Accidents per million hours worked in 2020˄
We surpassed our 2020 target of halving our 2008 TRFR of 2.10 – in fact, we achieved this in 2013, seven years ahead of schedule. Our 2020 performance shows a reduction of 70% against our 2008 TRFR baseline.
Sadly, during the same reporting period there were three fatalities at work involving two contractors and one employee. A contractor lost his life in one of our tea plantations in Tanzania due to a lightning strike. In Romania, a contractor died while performing work on a construction site in a newly acquired business. One of our factory employees died in a road accident in India while stepping off a shuttle bus on his way home. In line with our global policy, we held dedicated stand-downs across all Unilever operations to reinforce our commitment and pay respects to the colleagues we lost.
Since these incidents, we have put several measures in place to further enhance our existing, stringent safety policies:
- We have further improved our lightning detection and warning systems in all of our plantation sites.
- As road-related accidents remain the leading cause of fatalities and a major risk to employees, we have reinforced our global safe travel standard following the accident in India, further tightening the requirements for safe travel in vehicles.
- We have strengthened our safety framework to integrate all newly acquired businesses across the world.
We do not want a repeat of these tragic accidents. We’re aiming for Vision Zero.
Safety performance in detail
We know that some stakeholders appreciate more in-depth disclosure on our safety performance. Below we provide additional detail on our performance over a longer period for four key measures of safety.
Accident rates (2010 - 2020)
Total Recordable Frequency Rate per 1,000,000 hours
The table above shows our preferred accident rate indicator for reporting – TRFR – over the period 2010–2020.
In 2013 we adjusted our reporting period from 1 January to 31 December to 1 October to 30 September. PwC has assured our TRFR from 2014 onwards.
TRFR is one of two occupational safety performance indicators that has been independently assured by PwC. The other indicator is the number of fatal accidents.
TRFR measures the number of occupational accidents per one million hours worked. It is defined as all workplace accidents, excluding only those that require simple first-aid treatment.
TRFR is calculated as the sum of all lost‐time accidents (LTA) plus restricted work cases (RWC) plus medical treatment cases (MTC) expressed as a rate per one million hours worked.
In line with industry best practice, we include in our definition of an ‘employee’, temporary staff and contractors who work under our direct supervision.
We capture TRFR for all Unilever manufacturing and non-manufacturing sites (offices, research laboratories) and report and assure it from 1 October to 30 September each year.
Fatal accidents (2010 - 2020)
Employees off site
Employees on site
Contractors on site
In 2013 we adjusted our reporting period from 1 January to 31 December to 1 October to 30 September.
Fatalities is one of two occupational safety performance indicators that has been independently assured by PwC. The other indicator is TRFR.
Lost-Time Injury Frequency Rate
Alongside tracking accidents, it’s vital we understand the frequency and nature of the injuries these accidents can cause. Our Airsweb reporting system helps us collect more granular data on our Lost-Time Injuries Frequency Rate (LTIFR).
LTIFR measures injuries per million hours worked. It counts all ‘lost-time’ safety injuries, i.e. injuries that keep people away from work.
We measure LTIFR for all our direct employees and all the contractors who work under our direct supervision (for the year 1 October to 30 September).
Since 2014, we’ve also used Airsweb to help improve safety for contractors who work on our sites but are not directly supervised by Unilever (this includes both project contractors and business support contractors). This has led to a 55% reduction in LTIFR for these contractors between 2014 to 2020.
Occupational Illness Frequency Rate
Our World Class Manufacturing and Occupational Health teams work together to make our factories and offices healthy places to work.
Our programmes cover the prevention of work-related illness and occupational diseases, ergonomics, environmental health and protection from noise and enzymes. See Employee wellbeing for more information.
We track occupational illnesses for our employees under the criteria laid down by the US Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA).
Using the Occupational Illness Frequency Rate (OIFR), we measure the number of work-related ill health cases per million hours worked for all our direct employees (from 1 January to 31 December each year). We do not yet measure this for contractors or the temporary staff we call ‘contingent labour’.
OIFR generally increased between 2014 and 2017. This was caused by two factors. The first was the changes we made to our in-house reporting systems to enable better data collection. The second was an increase in employee awareness and reporting of mental health issues in particular, driven by our communication campaigns and training.
Since 2017, we have seen a steady decline in our OIFR, which now stands at 0.41 per million hours worked, the lowest level since we started reporting.
Since 2019, we have included new acquisitions that operate as decentralised business units in our TRFR; had we included these in 2017 and 2018, our reported TRFR would have been approximately 6% higher in each year.