The Leader’s Role in Safety

By Phil La Duke

 

There are a lot quixotic efforts out there to find the one key to making the workplace safety. This search for the safety equivalent of the city of Cibola has led to a lot of flakey methodologies and given rise to the age of zealots in the safety function—people so unwilling to even consider a hint at a new idea that they not only are unable to learn, but who also sour the rest of the organization on sound safety practices.

Much as it would make our lives easier there is no panacea for safety, no golden key that will unlock all the mysteries surrounding injuries, no magic bullet. But insomuch as there is no one thing that we can do that will solve all our problems in worker safety, there is one element of safety that stands above the rest: leadership.

I don’t talk much about leadership in the context of safety. Frankly, the reason I don’t explore the role of the leader in worker safety that often is because it invites a cacophony of whining from the safety practitioners who endlessly bleat about how they suffer in vain because leaders don’t listen to them. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Leaders don’t listen to whiney; “the sky is falling” prattling. They want evidence, cost estimates, and return on investment (not effort, changing the name to “return on effort” is a recipe for disaster).

That having been said, leaders play the most crucial role in safety than any single group. How? Simple:

  • Expect Excellence. To a large extent you get what you put up with. If leaders are happy with a workplace that is “safe enough” they will get the bare minimal. Accepting mediocrity creates a low functioning operation rife with risk. When someone ultimately dies in the workplace the leaders shouldn’t be surprised. The death isn’t just bad luck, but the product of inept leadership that accepts unsafe conditions and behaviors simply as the cost of doing business. In every (and I am loathe to use an absolute, but here it is accurate and appropriate) high functioning and highly effective organization safety is a priority, it’s a deeply embedded value. You can fake a priority, but your values dictate who you are both as a person and as an organization. A leader who doesn’t accept unsafe behavior and conditions will find that more often than not, the organization will rise to his or her expectations.
  • Invest In Competency. Incompetent workers are rarely able to work safe. If one cannot perform the task one is required to do, or if one has not been properly trained in how to do the task one’s job requires, one will likely end up doing it incorrectly greatly increasing the risk of injury and the severity of any injury that does occur. (We tend to focus on preventing injuries and lowering severity of injuries by looking at the process; on how things are supposed to happen, rather than on how they actually happen.) Simply investing in building the core skills of the workforce is one of the best investments an organization can make. Skilled workers miss less time, are more engaged, produce faster and at higher quality. An investment in competency isn’t just an investment in safety it’s an investment in success.
  • Hone the Process. Much as some would have you believe, safety isn’t all about behavior. Machines wear out, tools break, vehicles break down, and facilities deteriorate. (And yes, you can ultimately track all of these things back to some form of behavior, but ultimately this serves only to frame a hypothetical masturbatory intellectual debate that serves no good purpose except to make me want to smack someone.) Leaders, and I am referring to leaders at ALL levels, should look for ways to increase the reliability of the process and to leverage continuous improvement to make the workplace more efficient (and thus safer, there is no such thing as productivity without safety). The relentless pursuit of process variation is characteristic of great leaders.
  • Encourage Sound Judgment. Workers, who stop work to double check the safety of the work, discuss some confusion in the plan or otherwise stop and think before rushing into action should be encouraged for working smart, not punished for slowing operations.
  • Exhibit Consistency. Workers have to know what to expect from leaders. By consistently reinforcing the value of safety and the positive business effects of a safe workplace, leaders create shared values for safety.
  • Sell Safety. Leaders sell safety by believing in it, by cutting through all the malarkey and platitudes and doing the job the right way every time. Only when workers believe that safety is a core value of their leaders will they begin to act truly value it themselves. And by value it, I mean truly internalize it and hard wire it in their work; value not only their own safety but the safety of others as well.
  • Demand Performance. Once the leaders have created the clear and consistent expectation of safety, have ensured that people are able to work safe, created robust processes that produce predictable outcomes, encourage sound judgment and decision making on a consistent basis, then, and only then, he or she needs to ruthlessly demand performance. Demanding performance means holding people accountable for keeping the workplace a safe an efficient place to do our jobs.

Leaders play a pivotal role in worker safety, but that doesn’t get the whiny “but the leaders don’t listen to me” safety practitioners. Safety practitioners ARE leaders, and it is their job to build competence in other operation leaders. The safety practitioners are essential in educating other operation leaders in the discipline of safety. Most operations folks have no formal education in safety methodologies and those who have some idea of safety have often been sold snake oil. If your organization is going to be successful safety practitioners need to step up their efforts to build better leaders. Easier said than done, but whining about it won’t change anything.

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