To be a great safety leader, you need to care deeply about your people and regularly demonstrate the value of safety through your actions.
When an organization has successfully embedded safety as a value that permeates decisions at every level, leaders continue to push for further improvement. Senior executives push employees to find and address potential exposures throughout the organization. They see it as their personal responsibility to ensure their organizations promote the safety of their employees.
For a leader to be willing to do the things that are necessary to transform the organization, he or she must take safety personally. Obviously, leaders want high performance and profit. When it comes to safety, however, a leader has to make decisions based on how it affects the well-being of his or her people.
In other words, leaders have to think about their employees with the same level of concern they have for their own family. From the earliest days of recorded history, people have tried to protect human life. In business, a human life is the one thing that cannot be replaced. You can buy a new car, you can build a new plant, but you can’t bring somebody back. What we can’t replace are individuals. Safety practices represent an organization’s way of fulfilling the ethical and moral obligation that we all feel to the preservation and sanctity of human life.
Here’s an example: One company we work with had a fatality at its plant. The incident involved a high-pressure gas leak that sounded like a jet engine. The proper response was to shut down the entire operation, but because the leader had previously acted aggressively about valuing production over everything else, and knowing that pressing that button to stop production would cost at least $1 million in lost production, workers weren’t willing to make the call. So, no one initiated the shut down and a life was lost – all because the workers felt they couldn’t give the CEO honest feedback.
Of course, the CEO felt horrible. After attending the employee’s funeral, he vowed to convey to the workers that their lives were always the priority, not production. Unless that personal value shift happens, an organization will never achieve world-class safety.
We have identified seven practices that every leader needs to adopt to “walk the walk” when it comes to safety:
Vision. Leaders must have the ability to “see” what safety excellence looks like and a capability to articulate it throughout the organization.
Collaboration. Effective leaders work well with employees, promote cooperation and collaboration, actively seek input from people on issues that affect them, and encourage others to implement their decisions to improve safety.
Credibility. Does the leader generate a high level of trust with his or her employees? This requires a willingness to admit mistakes and advocate the safety interests of everyone, from managers to the front line.
Communication. Safety leaders need to be talking about safety every time they speak. Everything they communicate must be within the context of safety.
Action orientation. Is the safety leader ready to tackle safety proactively rather than just react to incidents? Safety leaders need to show urgency even in the absence of incidents to show they’re serious about achieving results.
Feedback and recognition. Leaders need honest and accurate feedback on the effect of their behaviors to help them ensure consistency between their passion for people and the message employees receive based on their actions.
Accountability. An effective leader gives workers a fair appraisal of their safety efforts and results, clearly communicates individual roles in the safety effort, and fosters the sense that every person is responsible for safety throughout the organization.
All of these elements work together in a way that creates not only an exemplary safety culture and an environment where people want to work safely, but also a culture in which it’s sustainable. Leaders in world-class safety organizations can serve as role models in this effort. It all starts with a personal commitment to workers first, not last.