Posted on February 27, 2013 by Rebecca Nigel

Safety excellence requires the true engagement of leadership.

Leaders effective at creating and sustaining change actively embrace their role in safety, take ownership of the results, and understand the safety mechanisms essential to achieving outcomes — easy to say.

The reality is that getting things done through others (the basic task of management) can be a tightrope walk under the best of circumstances. Leaders are at once coaches, directors, enforcers, and advocates.

When leading through change (such as in safety) they add the role of engagers: engaging their reports in new activities and in doing old things in new ways. It’s no surprise, then, that one of the most critical indicators of success in a change effort is how well a leader is able to influence others.

When leaders make missteps in safety it is rarely out of bad intent. More often the culprit is the leader’s lack of understanding about what he or she can and should be doing to influence safety. Here are some of the steps we have found to be critical in establishing an effective and appropriate leadership presence in safety:

1.       Develop and articulate your own safety vision.• Unlike a “vision statement”, your safety vision should be a heartfelt and personal viewpoint of how safety fits into the organization and why it matters. For most of us, this vision has to be cultivated through educating ourselves about safety in the organization and acquainting ourselves with what it means.

2.       Monitor the most critical elements of the safety system.• Enabling safety systems (e.g., hazard recognition and mitigation, skills training, and regulations and procedures) form the foundation of safety functioning. Know what these systems are, how they are audited, and how effective they are. Make sure that the employees involved have the resources and training needed to be successful.

3.       Ensure the effectiveness and use of sustaining mechanisms.• Sustaining mechanisms (e.g., personnel selection and development, organizational structure, and management systems) are those elements that support enabling safety systems and allow them to function. Determine how well these systems work – and how to improve their impact on safety systems.

4.       Establish a context for safety actions •Don’t make people guess about why safety activities and systems are important. State their importance clearly — and follow up your words with actions.

5.       Align organizational consequences with values and beliefs.• Employees take their cues from you. Consequences (e.g., rewarding high production achieved through safety shortcuts) that don’t match professed convictions (e.g. that safety is important) make values and beliefs a dead letter.

6.       Apply the right solution to the problem.• Avoid simplistic solutions for complex problems, e.g., the use of trinkets or threats to try to change behavior and culture.

7.       Focus on culture.• Change is sustained only when it becomes “the way we do things here.” Work at creating a culture that supports safety activities and safety improvement – and communication of important safety information even when it is unfavorable.