"Safety Dissident” [definition]: A person who does not buy into the health and safety program at all; they feel health and safety is a counterproductive, waste of time.

“Positional Leaders” [definition]: A person who has obtained a position of authority regardless of whether or not they understand real leadership skills such as social influence, focus, discipline, drive, optimism, respect, ethics, passion, collaboration, creativity, communication, relationship building and hard work. Positional leaders often influence people through their positional power rather than personnel leadership qualities.

Ever notice that many Positional Leaders in organizations are either pretending to care about health and safety or outright calling it a counterproductive waste of time? Since health and safety initiatives and overall health and safety commentary seem to be focused towards frontline workers, Positional Leaders appear to be getting a free pass on the safety train that already left the station a long, long time ago.

This issue appears to be especially true during this Coronavirus outbreak. Although legislation across various jurisdictions has been enacted to make Positional Leaders culpable for health and safety incidents (especially executives), many Positional Leaders are still placing productivity targets ahead of health and safety, and going largely undetected in this pursuit. It will be interesting to see if any Positional Leaders will be held accountable for intentionally downplaying and/or hiding valuable information about the Coronavirus outbreak during the early stages of the crisis.

I was also guilty of focusing my health and safety critique too narrowly on frontline workers until recently when I discovered that I needed to broaden my attention to include Positional Leaders within the organizational hierarchy as well. Originally when I coined the term “Safety Dissidents,” I did so to address those frontline workers who were directly involved in health and safety incidents. But after examining asking attendees of my “Communication for Safety” workshops to provide stories about Safety Dissidents they had encountered, I was shocked to learn that the vast majority of Safety Dissidents identified were at the leadership level and not at the frontline worker level.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

Initially, I could not wrap my head around why someone at the leadership level would have difficulty understanding the importance of health and safety. Surely every positional leader can capitulate to the obvious benefits of a positive and effective safety culture? But I have observed a multitude of false safety prophets within the Positional Leadership ranks of different organizations I’ve worked with.

Espousing the virtues of safety to the workforce has become paramount or even a rite of passage for Positional Leaders in all organizations to help them attain and hold on to higher positions.

There are likely a number of reasons as to why some Positional Leaders might become Safety Dissidents. Some are subject to the environment they grew up in and/or are currently working in where they have been influenced by other Safety Dissidents, while others may suffer from the Dunning-Kruger Effect. The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias where people with limited abilities or expertise are overconfident and believe they have superior abilities or expertise (Resnick, 2019).

Interestingly, “This overestimation occurs as a result of the fact that they don’t have enough knowledge to know they don’t have enough knowledge” (Azarian, 2018). For a near perfect example of how the Dunning-Kruger Effect can present itself in Positional Leadership and critical health and safety decision making, you needn’t look any further than the United States President, Donald Trump.

Perhaps Trump’s best demonstration of the Dunning-Kruger Effect lies in the following statement he made on March 6, 2020:

“I like this stuff [virology related to the Coronavirus]. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should have done that instead of running for president.”

Call to action

Although most Positional Leaders in our organizations don’t make public proclamations like the one Trump made above, they often, like Trump, put financial targets in front of the health and safety of their people.

This is not to say that there are no Safety Dissidents lurking among our frontline workers or that every Positional Leader is a safety phony, but this should serve as a wake-up call for organizations to ensure the people they appoint to leadership positions legitimately care about the health and safety program and demonstrate this care continuously through their actions. If Safety Dissidents at the top can be converted to true champions of the health and safety program, positive safety messaging and culture will naturally cascade down through the ranks to the frontline worker.

This is a call to action for not only those appointing safety minded people to leadership positions, but also to frontline workers to hold Positional Leaders to their safety commitments through their Joint Worksite Health and Safety Committees.