Leaders want to demonstrate commitment to safety. Many want to do more than provide resources and say that safety matters. The desire to be a visible supporter of safety is admirable. Unfortunately many leaders unintentionally act in ways that demonstrate they don’t understand safety, or even worse, they create the perception that safety isn’t taken seriously.
Here are some common ways leaders unintentionally trivialize safety (and what to do instead):
Pay Disproportionate Attention to Minor Safety Issues
Imagine an organization where people work in high-hazard situations, but the most prominent safety signs tell them not to carry uncovered coffee cups, and where meetings begin with a “safety minute”, but the topics are trivial. To the employees exposed to hazards, these examples (which we have actually seen) demonstrate that management simply doesn’t get it. By equally emphasizing all risks without appreciating differences in severity and potential leaders demonstrate how little they understand the exposures employees face every day.
What to Do Instead: To show concern for safety, you must understand the risks in the work. If you aren’t familiar with the risks, talk to frontline workers and safety staff, review hazard assessments, and read incident reports.
Engage in Pro-Forma Performance
It is apparent to workers when leaders treat safety activities as an obligation rather than taking a real interest in the exposures that exist. Leaders may do safety walk-arounds weekly or monthly, but when they’re done with a “let’s get this over with” attitude, it signals to subordinates that the managers don’t really value safety.
What to Do Instead: Challenge your own point of view about safety. What you believe shapes what you do—and how you do it. Ask yourself what safety means to you personally (not what you think it should mean, what it really means). Why is it important to you that no one gets hurt? How do you demonstrate that to others?
Forgive Lapses When Offset by Production
When a conscientious worker takes shortcuts with safety procedures to achieve a production target, he is doing what he perceives the organization wants—and that belief is likely based on past experience. Leaders who overlook a safety lapse because of the worker’s intentions signal that safety isn’t truly valued and should be sacrificed when production is at stake.
What to Do Instead: Apply firm coaching. Acknowledge the worker’s good intentions. At the same time, clarify that bending the rules isn’t what the organization wants, and if it happens again there will be more severe consequences.
Engage People but Display Lack of Understanding
Leaders are encouraged to interact with frontline workers to better understand exposures and to show they are connected and concerned. However doing this without adequate preparation can be problematic. Leaders unfamiliar with how operations work and what demands, constraints, and conditions apply may be perceived as out of touch.
What to Do Instead: Don’t let a lack of operational knowledge discourage you from spending time in the field. Go prepared to learn, tour operations with someone knowledgeable in the activities, or get thoroughly briefed before visiting a facility.
Appoint Weak Performers to Safety Roles
Some organizations fill safety roles with individuals who are viewed as weak performers or who are “filling out the time” before retirement. When safety personnel don’t have the respect of the organization it shows that leadership doesn’t value safety.
What to Do Instead: Place people in safety roles with the same care you would with the most critical operations management roles.
Fail to Demand Accountability
When safety roles and responsibilities are assigned without follow-up on performance, it signals that the safety assignments are not truly important to the organization.
What to Do Instead: Routinely check on progress and provide feedback on performance against safety-related roles and goals.
To paraphrase a common saying, the road to underperformance in safety is paved with good intentions.
Leaders who understand how good intentions can inadvertently create poor performance will be better equipped to turn intentions into reality.
This post is an excerpt taken from BST’s newest book, The Manager’s Guide to Workplace Safety. This book is designed for everyone who manages people, from the senior executive to the first-line supervisor. Understanding and using the guidance in this book can help every manager to be more effective in driving safety excellence. For more information and to order the book, please visit www.managersguidetoworkplacesafety.com.