In 1998, I was touring a large production facility to get a feel for the operations. I was about to begin a safety culture assessment because the leaders wanted to more fully understand the perspectives of the entire workforce. Company leaders also wanted to identify various management and employee perception gaps that were important to the health of their organization.

As I walked and talked with one of the leaders, it was clear that he had a vision for what he wanted to see but his new organization wasn’t there quite yet. He previously worked for an exceptional chemical company and stated, “I don’t see but I will — I’ve seen and felt it before.” He had the remnants of a great culture for safety in his mind’s eye but it may have been fading. This leader wanted a comparable culture within his current organization. He had a vision for an outstanding future state but there was work to do.

Starts with a vision!

Any type of higher-ordered success in safety starts with someone’s vision for excellence — a thought, a mirrored image from the past, perhaps a muddied picture of perfection that bounces around in one’s thoughts. Any great organization, institution, or innovation started with someone’s vision!  

Having a great vision for outstanding safety performance gets things started and moves people  to action. A safety vision describes a compelling future state of excellence — it helps to paint a mental picture and assists others in building the framework and foundation. It is inspiring, engaging, and energizing. It pulls people in and gets people involved. A shared vision helps to create a focal point, a positive sense of identification, and sheds light on the path forward. 

Many companies, certainly most large corporations with safety and health professionals, have  a safety vision statement. However, I have my doubts about the time and energy put into these assertions. In my experience, vision statements are usually written by one or two people, with little input from the workforce or its organizational leaders.  

A mistake

Workers need to play a role in developing and framing the organization’s vision for safety — embracing it, validating it, branding it, articulating it, and making it thoroughly visible.

Then it becomes theirs too, not the sole product of management or a committee or a small team. The vision is about “we” rather than “I.” To be honest, I don’t see many good safety vision statements. Few are persuasive. They do not give employees reason to move to excellence. But they do give employees reason to roll their eyes and shake their heads. The statements are often too wordy, too ambiguous. 

Bring the vision to life

John Maxwell states, “Good leaders must communicate vision clearly, creatively, and continually…”

We sell some form of our vision for safety to our leaders by making an emotional connection for the potential loss of humanity, connecting with the organization’s values — whatever it takes! 

A few years ago, I delivered a talk to a group of construction foremen and spoke about leading from the heart. Afterward, I received a lengthy email from one of the supervisors. I need to share a small part of his thoughts:

“I had a safety meeting with all of our employees today... I truly had everyone’s attention. A lot of our safety talks are about what to do and what not to do. I’ve done talks before where I asked them to be safe for their wives and kids, but I think this one made an impact. In all the years I’ve done safety talks, I’ve never had employees thank me. A few of the guys told me they never went to a safety meeting and had their hearts massaged.”

Embracing a vision for safety excellence is about more than simply gaining additional support. Getting the vision means getting it deep inside, cognitively and emotionally. 

Our vision rarely comes alive until we feel it, understand it, and share it in deeply personal ways — connecting the heads and hearts of those around us. And we need to do whatever is possible to help our leaders see and share a compelling vision for safety so that eventually, everyone’s heart is massaged.