Safety Leadership: Enabler, Excuse or Doing Harm?

by Dave Collins on March 2, 2017

in Safety Leadership



safety leadershipLatest must read by WHS Lawyer Greg Smith – first published here

Safety Leadership: Enabler, Excuse or Doing Harm?

I do not think that there is any serious view suggesting that “leadership” is not an important, if not the most important driver of safety performance.  One of the main findings from a 2002 review of Safety Culture was:

…  management was the key influence of an organisation’s safety culture. A review of the safety climate literature revealed that employees’ perceptions of management’s attitudes and behaviours towards safety, production and issues such as planning, discipline etc. was the most useful measurement of an organisation’s safety climate. The research indicated that different levels of management may influence health and safety in different ways, for example managers through communication and supervisors by how fairly they interact with workers (Thompson, 1998). Thus, the key area for any intervention of an organisation’s health and safety policy should be management’s commitment and actions towards safety (Safety Culture: A review of the literature).

In the wake of findings like these, and numerous others, it is unsurprising that safety leadership often dominates discussions about safety management.

But are there conversations about safety leadership that we are not having and should be?

To my mind, the hard work in health and safety management is understanding if, or the extent to which, health and safety risks in our business are being controlled.  All too often, however, in my experience “leadership” is an excuse to avoid the hard work of health and safety management.

The “psychology” (and I use that term as a complete layperson) of safety leadership seems to be that if I can convince my workforce that I genuinely care for them and that safety is genuinely important, then safety will take care of itself.

If I “care“, if I am a “safety leader” I do not need to do the hard work to critically challenge incident investigations, I do not need to analyse, understand and challenge audits.  If I am a “safety leader” then I can accept declining personal injury rates and green traffic lights on my corporate scorecard as evidence that my safety management system is working, without ever having to challenge the assumptions that underpinned that information.  Assumptions that have been shown time and again to be wrong.

This is the same discourse that threaded its way through safety culture: It doesn’t matter how bad our management systems are because we have a good “culture“.   It is also the same discourse that is starting to creep into the next wave of safety thinking, concepts like “safety differently” and “appreciative enquiry“.

I make no comment on the efficacy of leadership, culture, safety differently, appreciative enquiry or whatever the next trend will be but I do question where, in any of these concepts, we do the hard work of confirming that our risks are being controlled.

I recall many years ago reviewing a matter where a worker sent a hazardous substance through the internal mail using a yellow inter office envelope (back when they existed).  The worker broke every one of the organisations procedures and protocols for managing hazardous substances, yet the organisation viewed this dangerous  event as a triumph of their “culture“, because the worker “cared“.

The twisted logic where organisations use leadership or culture to wallpaper over the cracks of ineffective safety management systems, and actively avoid the hard work of understanding if their risks are being controlled,  is very often bought into stark relief following a disaster.

The next time you are in a meeting discussing safety management  listen to see if leadership or culture is being used as an avoidance strategy.  Are the difficult topics such as improving the quality of incident investigation or clarifying complex and bureaucratic safety management systems  or improving risk assessments bypassed with comments like:

we just need to get out and be seen more

or

we just need to spend more time in the field talking to the blokes

Is this leadership or an excuse to avoid the hard work?

Over and above  avoiding what really needs to be done, is it possible that the things we do in the name of “leadership” have the potential to actively undermine safety in our organisations?

Whatever your “leadership” objective might be, whether it is to demonstrate commitment, to understand the work being performed in your organisation, to appreciate what might be preventing people from complying with safety procedures or any other objective, how do you know that your actions in the name of leadership are achieving those objectives?   Because for all your good intentions there is a real risk that your presence in the field talking about safety might have the opposite effect.  It might promote cynicism amongst your workforce, it might disengage them from your safety message.

You may be seen as a leader whose only concern is to cover their own backside and who obsesses over safety issues important to you, without really listening to the concerns of the workforce.

How do you know if your safety leadership works?

I think that much of what is done in the name of safety and health has, consciously or unconsciously, devolved into “window dressing“.   Much of what we do is held up to the public or to our workforce as evidence of our commitment to safety, yet the substantive hard work necessary to understand if our health and safety risks are being managed remains undone – the façade of health and safety management is attractive but the building is crumbling.

Safety leadership and related concepts of care and culture have a place.  More than that, they are critically important.  But they are not buzzwords to be lightly tossed around and as a critical process, leadership deserves the same level of scrutiny and analysis as any of your other critical processes.

  • Rob Long

    A good piece Greg. There is so much ‘talk’ about ‘culture’ and ‘leadership’ in safety but both are so poorly defined. On most ocassions I see it both are mis-defined like ‘culture is what we do around here’. The problem is because the culture is so infused with ‘dumb’. Safety still doesn’t know the difference between tokenism, slogans and substance. As long as we throw zero harm about we are covered, the great CEO delusion, mandated by boardroom logic and dividend thinking. Most of the times I am called into an organisation it is never the managers who want educating, its always for other people. The managers believe they already know enough about risk, apparently.

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