Management Support Is Essential for Safety – But What Is It?

by Dr Rob Long on April 5, 2014

in Workplace Safety

Safety People continually harp on about the lack of management commitment and support being the major impediment to them being successful for their role but ask them exactly what they mean by that will usually elicit a blank stare. Often the frustration from not getting the support from management that we want is not due to a problem with what we are trying to do but how we market or sell it to the decision makers and how well we can make it fit with other business priorities. Like it or not, Safety is not “No1 Priority”, never has been and never will be.

This is an interesting article by James Loud on the Safety Cary Blog – see it here: Management Support Is Essential for Safety – But What Is It?

You may also enjoy these recent articles by Phil LaDuke, Dr Rob Long & Robert Sams

Management Support Is Essential for Safety – But What Is It?

by James Loud

Management support: We all say we want it, need it, and can’t do our jobs without it.  Saying that management support is essential for safety “success” has in fact become something of a safety profession mantra.  A majority of safety professionals, 51.2% according to a 2002 ASSE survey (Kendrick/Pater 2), however, don’t believe they receive that support. But what do we mean by management support?  What specifically should we want our managers to do to in support of safety?  Is asking for support even the right question?  As a staff/support function, shouldn’t safety professionals really be asking what they can do to support management?  If we really want support for safety, not just ourselves, we must also know what to ask for.

The “Wrong” Support

Over the years I’ve come to believe that one of the principal reasons management fails to support safety is that we (the safety profession) far too often ask them to support ineffective, and sometimes counterproductive, practices.  Some safety professionals believe, for example, that management must rigidly enforce the safety rules and procedures with punitive methods that kill employee trust and cooperation.   Others cite the importance of management in financing and paying lip service to their flavor-of-the-month, off-the-shelf quick fixes and “silver bullets.”   Perhaps worst of all, some safety professionals seem to view management support as firm backing for their attempts to run the entire organizational safety effort with management and the workers as idle bystanders.  Support that enables the abdication of management from the safety effort is not what you should want.

The “Right” Support

Rather than attempting to manage safety for them, we should want and expect our management to be good managers – of safety!  It’s not enough merely writing memos and speeches for managers to deliver.  Safety professionals need to help management actively drive the safety effort like other important organizational objectives (e.g., production, quality, schedule, costs).  Most managers got to their positions because they were successful at getting things done.  Safety professionals should encourage managers to use the same skills that got them recognized as effective leaders for the safety effort.   Why manage safety differently than other important organizational objectives?

So What Specifically Should We Ask Our Management to Do?

After 40 years of observing and assessing both successful and unsuccessful safety efforts, I’ve concluded that we need only three things from our management to attain and sustain safety excellence.  Here’s the support for safety I want from management and what I tell managers anytime I get a chance.

1.  Own safety.  Line management safety ownership cannot be delegated and must be demonstrated.  Don’t attempt to farm it out to safety specialists, consultants or employee committees.  Only you (line management) can make safety an organizational value and part of the culture.  Maximize your resources, including your safety staff, the management team and workers, to help you succeed but stay actively and visibly involved.  Recognize that just as you own production you also own how that production is achieved.  Production, quality, cost and safety, are all your responsibilities. Safety problems are your problems. Just telling employees to work safely is not enough.  Get out of the office and see what your workers are doing.  Use these work observations to partner with your employees to identify ways you can work together to help perform work more safely.

For greater details into the concepts of Safety Management by Walking Around, see these articles:

Many high safety performance companies believe these on-the-floor, face-to-face employee interactions are the single most important action managers can take to promote safety (Thomen, 1991). Nothing you do will pay a bigger dividend than your visible good example and commitment.  It’s simply not realistic to expect employees to take safety more seriously than youshow them you do.   Finally, be very skeptical of any quick fix safety solution, especially if it takes safety management out of your hands or requires you to handle safety differently than your other top business priorities.

2.  Manage safety like it’s important.  Make sure you have integrated safety into every aspect of your business from design and procurement to facility shutdowns.  If you don’t build safety into your business functions, you’ll later find safety in competition with them.  Like quality, safety is merely part of the work process that is your ultimate responsibility.  Don’t let it get separated.

Ensure that you and your management team meet routinely to hold yourselves accountable and to personally discuss (and not just listen to the safety manager) safety issues and progress – like you do for other important business objectives.  Ensure timely and appropriate corrective actions are taken – and that they are effective.  Your employees expect and deserve prompt attention to their concerns and suggestions for improvement.  In short, expect and lead continuous safety improvement.

If you and your other line managers aren’t already leading the safety effort with active participation, improvement is not going to happen overnight.  The point is to get started and don’t stop.  First you’ll need an effective PDCA approach to safety (ANSI Z10-2012 is a useful guide) that is committed to continuous improvement, and the will to make it happen.  You may well find that you just need to work smarter rather than harder.

3.  Get Your Employees Involved. Although safety is ultimately your responsibility, you can’t manage it by yourself.  I have not seen top safety performance in any organization that did not have active and widespread engagement of the workforce in the effort.  Top safety performers recognized years ago that employees aren’t the safety problem; they are an important part of the safety solution.  These companies engage their workforce in a variety of meaningful safety activities.  They expect, and get, the large majority of their safety input (i.e., opportunities for improvement) from their workers.  They actively solicit and respond promptly to this input because they know it gets results.  Employees are given genuine opportunities to influence their own safety by helping design their work environment, policies and work procedures.  This adult-to-adult engagement clearly demonstrates to the workforce that they are respected and taken seriously.  As a result they are much more likely to work safely – and more productively.


Every employee wants and deserves the support of his or her management.  Safety professionals are no different.  We all want respect, decent remuneration and adequate resources to accomplish our assigned tasks.  It is also true that not all managers are created equal and we don’t always get the managers we would want.  Certainly not everyone in a management position is an effective manager of anything, including safety.  If your management believes that safety is your responsibility – not theirs – you’ve got your work cut out for you.  Regardless of your management, however, the main role of the safety function should be to provide the best possible guidance (i.e., support) to line managers who alone possess the responsibility and capability to achieve high performance in safety.  Safety professionals need to stop trying to do all things safety and instead use their talents, expertise and good judgment to support management in doing the right thing.


ANSI Z10-2012, American National Standard – Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems.

Kendrick, James and Pater, Robert. 2006. “The Future of Safety Leadership” Presented at the 2006  ASSE Professional Development Conference in Orlando, FL.

Thomen, J. R. (1991). Leadership in Safety Management. New York: Wiley.

Read the article here: Management Support Is Essential for Safety – But What Is It?

  • An interesting article from James.

    I remember some of the hare brained schemes I had when I first started in the realms of safety. Some had merit worthy of exploration, many were self indulgent avenues of interest. Both taught me valuable lessons.
    My General Manager at the time never shot down a proposal but always said “Give me the business case.”
    My new found safety wisdom was completely unsupported by business acumen. How could I develop this? This lead to the development of strong professional and personal relationships with the Business Development Manager, Management Accountant, Strategic Planner, HR Manager and Front Line Managers. After a period of learning by osmosis and debate I was able to understand where OHS fitted into the grand scheme of things. I was granted a permanent seat at the table during fortnightly senior management meetings which further developed an understanding of the role of all levels of management and systems integration. Not because I was entitled to a seat, but because I had developed enough to have a valuable and holistic business input.
    With hindsight I had always had the support of that General Manager, but I had too develop enough to give him a useable product. In his words, my job was to load the gun, show him where to aim it and tell him when to pull the trigger; and have his back to support the consequences.
    To often we see salaried safety professionals seek to hide away from responsibility whilst promoting half arsed schemes that have little strategic merit or relationship to the organisational culture. Then complain that management doesn’t support them.
    From another perspective; if you can’t sell your product, project or scheme to your manager, how can you expect your manager to sell it to the workforce?
    As a safety professional you need to understand the world of management, business development, finance, strategic planning and marketing…perhaps safety knowledge is even secondary to these. Without these skills, you have no credibility and are of limited use.
    Before crying “Lack of support!” or “My manager doesn’t listen!” ask yourself whether your project will fit into the big picture and how it is the best fit. you need to earn your credibility, don’t expect it as a gift.

    • Agree totally Mark, I was lucky to have moved into safety and risk from a production background and it sure does give you a different perspective. I do feel for safety people coming straight out of Safety Uni – their intentions may be honorable but…….

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