Some of us are blessed to step into an EHS role where “the table is set.” Top management daily walks the talk, and supports and publicly acknowledges our efforts. We operate in a Positive Safety Culture.

That’s some of us. For others… not so much.

What if our role is to manage safety in an environment where much needs to be done, and there is little tangible support?

Personal attributes of safety pros make “walking alone” more likely to be successful – optimism, resilience, self-confidence, high initiative, to name a few. But building a Positive Safety Culture in an organization that is not strongly and visibly supportive from the top is a challenge, let’s be clear.

Borrowing liberally from the work of John Kotter, Harvard Business School guru, here are ways to build support for safety efforts when the environment is, at least initially, not supportive.

Act with (preemptive) urgency

Safety efforts always get a shot in the arm when, sadly, we have had an accident or worse, a run of accidents, or much worse, a fatality. Certain airlines (which shall remain nameless) were not interested in CRM (crew resource management) training until they hit their own patch of “bad luck”… after which they became strong advocates. The trick is to create a legitimate sense of urgency preemptively, in the absence of accidents as triggering events. I recommend identifying “missed opportunities” (i.e., safety hazards that we need to correct, deficits in our safety training, near misses we need to learn from), benchmarking what others are doing with visible, positive results, and developing plans to be best-in-show, rather than trying to catch up with safety once we are in the hot seat.

Broaden your base

Don’t be a “one-man band.”  Energize and deputize others. A meaningful and representative safety team, with visibility and clout, is a start. If the boss can be on-boarded, so much the better. The boss is usually the pathway to the resources needed to mount and support an effective safety effort. I like the image of “putting him/her at the head of the parade… and gently pushing from the back.” As in, “What a great plan, boss – you were right about this all along....”

But if you are quite sure that you are in fact working without support from your boss and other leadership folks, you can at least build and energize an active safety committee that produces visible results. Such a safety coalition can serve as a “substitute for leadership.” And, if you are able to carefully get the attention of leaders above the boss, sometimes the boss begins to “get it.”

Develop and communicate your vision

Effective change efforts require a more or less clear and energizing image of the “future state.” What will our Positive Safety Culture look like when we “get there”? What will we see that is different from today? How will our safety meetings function? How will we learn from near misses? Will associates have the skill and confidence they need to coach each other? An inspiring vision is not just “nice words on the wall.” It is a critical element of every successful major transformation, including building a Positive Safety Culture.

Safety pros have not always been the best at “marketing their message.” Too often they have operated in a silo, in a compliance-driven, reactive mode. Not all are expert at getting the word out about the value they provide to their organization as a critical business partner. A good idea for EHS folks is to take advantage of every available opportunity (and create some if they don’t exist) to tell the story. Get in front of your leadership, as well as the associates out there where the work gets done. Help them be continuously aware and mindful as they work.

Identify steps towards the vision

Again, with the support that can be generated by the engagement of a vibrant and motivated safety committee, let folks know what their specific role is in driving us towards our vision of a Positive Safety Culture. What are their “marching orders”? What can they do now to make a positive difference?

Reinforce the right behavior

Identify and celebrate successes. Obviously, the standard lagging indicators (no reportables for X period of time, incident rate less than Y, etc.) are going to be tracked. Beyond those metrics, though, identify leading indicators such as results of plant audit/walk-throughs, near-miss discussions, evaluation of safety meetings, anecdotal “moment of truth” accounts of coaching interactions, etc. as positive steps toward the Positive Safety Culture. When you see those steps, give the positive feedback.

Don’t let up

Once things are moving in the right direction, the issue becomes maintaining momentum and sustaining the effort. Keep it fresh and in front of the organization. Vary the format (and leadership) of safety meetings. Change safety signage. In general, be the champion and drive it relentlessly, again with a broad base of support.

Make it stick

Even an energized effort can run down over time. Sometimes the champions get reassigned. But a true Positive Safety Culture takes on a life of its own. In the same way that some organizations are known for quality, or customer service, or innovation, your company can become known for its positive culture of safety (as indeed some best-in-show companies are).

None of the foregoing should be taken as a claim that it is easy to transition from going it alone to generating the support needed to create a sustained Positive Safety Culture.  But these seven recommendations do at least give a general roadmap for getting there.