Managers are charged with the safety of the people in their organization. And among the most important things that managers can do to deliver on this charge is to support a safety culture. Even though most managers and supervisors care a great deal about safety, they can say and do things that can have unintended effects — often without knowing it.

In order to build (or strengthen) a safety culture, it’s helpful for managers to recognize pitfalls of leading in safety and understand how to remedy them. 

1. Pay disproportionate attention to minor safety issues

To employees exposed to the most significant hazards, an “all risks are equal” approach demonstrates that management may mean well but simply doesn’t get it. To support safety, you must first know the risks in the work being done under your span of control. Talk to front-line workers and safety staff, review hazard assessments, and read incident reports. All of these things will help you understand where people can and do get hurt on the job.

2. Engage in pro-forma performance

Few managers blatantly give lip service to safety (e.g., talking passionately about production for several minutes then adding, “Oh yes, and let’s be safe.” ) But many do have the same effect, for example doing a safety walk-around that is correct to the letter but with a “let’s get this over with” demeanor. To communicate a sincere concern for safety, you first need to care about it. Challenge your own point of view about what safety is and what it means to you personally (not what you think it should mean, what it really means). Having a personal connection to safety breathes life into your interactions and shows that you care about it.

3. Forgive lapses when offset by production

Consider the good, conscientious worker. Maybe he or she takes a few shortcuts with safety procedures now and then to help the group achieve a production target. The worker here is acting in the way he perceives the organization wants, and that belief is likely based on past experience.

The dilemma for the supervisor or manager in this situation is that the worker’s intentions were good, but the actions were inconsistent with safety. When a leader overlooks the safety lapse because of the worker’s intentions, this clearly signals that safety should always be sacrificed when production is at stake. When faced with this dilemma, it is essential to apply firm coaching. Acknowledge that the worker may have thought he was doing the right thing. At the same time, clarify that bending the safety rules is not what the organization wants, and if it happens again there will have to be more severe consequences.

4. Appoint weak performers to safety roles 

The extent to which safety is important in an organization will be judged in part by the quality of personnel placed in key safety-related roles. Traditionally, there has been a tendency to give safety roles to weak performers in other jobs, or to individuals “filling out the time” before retirement. How we staff safety roles reflects the real value we have for it. To avoid this trap, use the same care and selectivity you would with the most critical operations management roles when you staff for safety.

5. Fail to demand accountability

Finally, one of the most common ways to undermine safety culture is to assign safety roles and responsibilities then fail to follow-up. You’re telling people that these safety assignments are not really important. The fix: Routinely check on progress and provide feedback on performance against safety-related roles and goals.

Avoid the pitfalls

To paraphrase a common saying, the road to underperformance in safety is paved with good intentions.

For managers, it is not enough to simply know what to do in safety, they must also understand the context in which things are being done — and how what they say and do affects the culture in which safety activities happen.