5 Ways to Achieve Successful Safety Leadership

Posted by Paul Leavoy on Fri, Mar 13, 2015 @ 01:10 PM

safetycultureAs we have discussed to great lengths on this blog, effective safety performance is built on a foundation of involved safety leadership from the top down, and engaged safety activity from the ground up. It sounds great in principle--and perhaps simple, but in reality is a lot more challenging in execution.

However, with the right commitment and perseverance, safety excellence can indeed be achieved. In a future post I will discuss strategies to foster frontline engagement in safety strategies, but here let's discuss five points that can go a long way towards cultivating effective safety leadership. Many of these points involve a top-level commitment and require buy-in from the VP of safety, plant management, or even the CEO to demonstrate effectiveness. While it may take time to achieve success, a top-level dedication to these ideas will ultimately improve safety performance in the long term.

1. Effectively illustrate the costs of safety done wrong, and the benefits of safety done right

As with all things safety-oriented, this is a delicate balance. We don’t want to fear monger by over-emphasizing the negative consequences of safety management executed poorly, but we also don’t want to rely too much on the premise of a safe workplace to actually motivate employees.

Safety costs are staggering for frontline workers. They see their colleagues every day, foster bonds, and often fraternise with them after work. One day they might see a friend’s arm crushed in machinery or, worse yet, have to deal with a colleague's on-the-job death. These are highly demoralizing situations, and they cultivate a variety of negative effects for the enterprise.

For example, workers privy to incidents or fatalities begin to question their own safety. Perhaps skilled workers begin to seek other opportunities from employers with a better safety record. Sometime those closest to the incident or fatality need time off to handle the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) associated with the event.

These situations have soft costs that are hard to delineate on balance sheets, but are huge financial burdens nonetheless. And that’s above and beyond the hard costs of incidents and fatalities that we can actually calculate.

We ultimately want employees to understand the costs of safety gone wrong, but this will be achieved through a delicate balance of demonstrating the consequences of lax safety and illustrating the benefits of safety done right. Visual case studies, onboarding videos illustrating safety costs from a human-impact perspective, and testimonials from those who have lost colleagues on the job can effectively communicate the value of a safety-oriented culture. However, a fine line has to be maneuvered, as we do not want to cultivate a sense of fear among employees.

2. Lead by example

This one’s simple: Make safety a part of your whole mandate as a leader. Results will come, eventually, but all the human capital within your organization will need to know you take safety seriously. It simply cannot be an afterthought, or even secondary to other metrics, like finances. If you take safety as seriously as you do financials on your quarterly and annual reports, the former will improve in tandem with the latter, because you’ll avoid the costly pitfalls of safety gone wrong.

The lifecycle costs of safety incidents are staggering and rarely comprehensively evaluated by leading manufacturers. So:

  • Include safety metrics in annual reports: This will show you take safety as seriously as all other aspects of corporate performance.
  • Get safety to the table: If you do not have a VP of EHS or safety at your top-level, boardroom meetings, make it happen.
  • Put safety on a level with financial performance: Poorly executed safety management hurts your bottom line in the long term potentially worse than any other corporate performance aspect. When you link ROI to safety, the payoff will be enormous. 
  • Lead by example. Even if you are a C-Level leader, make it a point to wear PPE and follow safety procedures to a 'T' when you are on the field or plant floor.

3. Consider incentives over persecution

The incentive conversation is controversial and a little polarized. Do we reward employees for finding more safety errors? If an incentive program is in place, will workers overreport? Will we seem to have worse safety performance than we actually have? Or will employees report responsibly?

While we will get into the perils and advantages of incentivization in future posts, I believe one thing is clear: persecution and disincentivization are worse than the alternatives. In performance management we often talk about reactive versus proactive measures. Reactive actions ultimately persecute an individual or individuals and are intended to ‘scare’ the lateral workforce into compliance. This approach will only scare workers into compliance, and ultimately drive them to either seek other work or else work around the hurdles they are presented.

In any case, safety incentives work better than disincentives on the sole basis that employees that are penalized for lax safety performance do not encourage others to achieve safety excellence in their day-to-day duties. Any fear-based motivation—especially when cultivated by leadership—will not inspire the first vanguard of safety to improve safety performance.

4. Obsess over root causes

Speaking of controversial ideas, Behavior-Based Safety (BBS) also tends to polarize crowds these days. My belief is that the mobile workforce is better enabling us to capture incident and accident details and trends on the fly. For example, mobile apps offered by many leading EHS software providers enable employees to capture data associated with concerning behaviour and log it into a system that, well-integrated with other enterprise application and business intelligence systems, can actually tell us that someone on the plant floor at a particular site fails to tie his shoelaces on an ongoing basis and that this could present problems in the future.

I think with the emergence of mobility, IoT, and Big Data in the EHS environment we’re on the cusp of making sense of these ground-floor observations, but time will tell if we can make sense of it all. Still, I think as polarizing as BBS can be, technology will increasingly enable it and make it a more prevalent factor on the plant floor and at the boardroom table. We get closer to better root-cause and predictive analysis as technology improves, not farther away, and I think this is a trend that cannot be ignored.

5. Make zero incidents/zero fatalities an achievable aspiration

Yes, it may be the holy grail of safety management at any manufacturing operation, and is rarely if ever actually achieved. However, I can’t help but turn to Alfred Tennyson’s timeless quote, “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp, else what’s a heaven for?”

In short, we ought to strive for more than we think we can actually achieve. Perfection in safety may seem elusive at the best of times but, safety-related costs aside, it is a fundamental moral imperative that we do our utmost to prevent our workers from losing their lives or being severely injured on the job. The last conversation you want to have involves accounting for the critical injury or death of a fallen employee to his or her grief-stricken family. It’s bad on the business ledger, it’s traumatizing for families, and the public at large also retains the memory of the loss you failed to prevent. Plus, as some businesses have demonstrated, we can come very close to safety perfection.

When we make a zero-incident/fatality mandate central to our goals, we do a number of things that are beneficial for the enterprise.

  • We make money: Incidents and fatalities have the potential to paralyse a business. Managed well, we don’t have to experience them or their massive and long-lasting fallout.
  • We keep our customers: When we fail at safety, we lose customers, be they other businesses or individual consumers. 
  • We save lives: There’s no question that it is terrible to lose the life of an employee or else severely injure them. As alluded earlier, this impacts other employees in significant ways, psychologically and otherwise, factors that in turn impact the bottom line.

Have you been a safety leader? What lessons have you learned? Let us know.

EHS management

Tags: Environment, Health and Safety (EHS)