Distributing Ownership of Your Safety Culture

Distributing Ownership of Your Safety CultureOne piece of advice I often give supervisors, manager and other leaders who bemoan the fact that one or more of their employees are chronic complainers is to turn those employees into problem solvers. Tell them,

“Look, I don’t mind you reporting problems in the workplace – in fact I want you to do that. But from now on I’d like you to come prepared to offer at least two potential solutions to each issue you report.”

That approach will help those employees begin to own those problems, or it will help them to pick their complaint battles more carefully. Either way it will quickly cure chronic complaining! Employees with “skin in the game” tend to think more like owners than those who have no skin in the game.

10-things-sl-stylesA few weeks ago we began a series on how to build better ownership for the safety culture among Operations employees. And there we saw how these same principles of employee engagement force us to reconsider our defined roles in a safety culture—and how we may inadvertently be contributing to a lack of safety ownership among those same Operations employees. Here’s another idea to advance that conversation.

Centralize Processes, But Distribute Ownership

The traditional role of the safety team (or person) as the “owner” of the facility’s safety processes may inadvertently work against the effort to get everyone to become true owners of safety. The slogan that “everyone owns safety” is no doubt well-intentioned and commendable; but unless (and until) specific responsibilities are attached to that slogan, it often remains an intangible and ethereal concept that never finds actionable expression.

Safety “Steward” Vs. Safety “Owner”

One way to counter this phenomenon is to re-position the role of EHS from “safety owners” to something more like “safety stewards.” As “safety owners” it’s easy for everyone else on the floor to point your way when there’s a question about the safety policy or the safe work procedure for a given task:

The safety guy’s in that office over there—go ask him!”

But when operations itself is that “safety guy,” suddenly there’s a change in how we think about and treat safety ownership, and it ends up fostering a healthy self-reliance that just wasn’t there before.

The difference between the roles of safety “owner” and safety “steward” is the difference between administration and oversight. Owners (in this case, Operations) should become the “administrators” of the safety programs (maintaining, updating, communicating and training employees on safety programs that impact their facility). This may entail several different committees, each of which would become administrators of a different safety program or process.

This ownership should be distributed in such a way that it is a natural fit for any given department. For instance, it makes sense for the Maintenance department to “own” the Lockout/Tagout program. Likewise is makes sense for the Electrical Techs or electricians to “own” the Arc Flash program. For a program like HazCom (where multiple departments are impacted equally), it may make more sense to form a cross-functional committee that is represented by multiple departments. fctc-online-banner

So, if all of this is handed off to Operations, just what does the “safety steward” (EHS) do? In this scenario the safety steward would act in more of an advisory role. They are there to centralize the process, guide Operations as needed, provide insights and adjustments, and occasionally audit these programs to ensure program integrity. They are there to build capability into Operations about these programs, train them, coach them, and ensure they have the skills, resources and tools needed to be successful at it.

By distributing ownership for safety in this way we go a long way toward bridging the common gap between what we say we do (e.g., “everyone owns safety”) and what we actually do.  Next issue we’ll explore some additional ways to build operational ownership of safety, but that’s it for this edition of Recordable INSIGHTS. Until next time.

~ES


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Eric Svendsen

Eric Svendsen, Ph.D., is Principal and lead change agent for safetyBUILT-IN, a safety-leadership learning and development organization. He has over 20 years experience in creating and executing outcomes-based leadership development and culture change initiatives aligned to organizational goals, and he personally led the safety-culture initiatives of a number of client organizations that resulted in “best ever safety performance” years for those companies.

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