Foundations for Leading a Safety Culture. Where to Begin? (Part 1)

Foundations for Leading a Safety Culture. Where to Begin? (Part 1)I’m often asked by participants in my safety-leadership sessions what they need to do to start the process of building and leading a safety culture. And while there are many things that need to be done concurrently at an Organizational level to ensure there is an infrastructure that supports a sustainable safety culture, there are some things that all of us can do immediately to begin leading it personally. Here are just a few tips to get you started:

Take responsibility for the safety of others SBI-coach-article-ad

A big part of leading a safety culture (regardless of the size of your sphere of influence) is to take stock of your own leadership and the way you are communicating safety. When someone gets hurt on the job, or is caught engaging in an unsafe behavior, what is your response?

10-things-sl-stylesIs it a hands-off response? “I don’t know why he did it. I told him not to. We talked about it in our safety meeting. You can check the roster to see he was there. I can’t explain why he did it.”

That type of response is not leadership – it’s management. Leadership asks the question: “Was there something in the way I communicated safety that led this person to believe this was an acceptable thing to do? Did I communicate safety as a policy instead of a core value? Did I come across as simply ‘checking the boxes’ when it came to safety communication?”

Don’t get me wrong. The person who engaged in the unsafe behavior is completely culpable for his own actions — after all, he made the decision to do it. But culpability is not the same as responsibility. Even though I’m not culpable for his actions, I still might be responsible as a leader if I failed in my leadership duties to communicate safety in a way that would have given my employees the best opportunity to internalize it for themselves.

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Speaking of safety communication, just how effective is it really? What opportunities are we taking to communicate safety, and just how meaningful are those safety engagements? We’ve all been to the kind of safety meetings where the meeting leader ends up reading the safety points, and then ends with “any questions? No? Good, let’s get to work and be safe today.” More often than not that type of safety communication goes in one ear and out the other. No one remembers it five minutes later.

Effective safety communication requires engaging workers in conversation, asking them open-ended questions, getting them thinking actively about safety on the job, and genuinely raising their safety awareness and safety ownership.

Build safety into every conversation

Many of us regularly attend production or operations meetings to talk about how we’re going to tackle the day’s activities. Usually there’s a big focus on meeting the fill-rate or production-volume numbers, meeting quality expectations, reducing waste, etc. “Oh, but before we get into any of that, let’s have our ‘safety moment.’ … Okay, we’ve finished our ‘safety moment,’ now let’s talk about what we’re going to do today” – as though those two things are different!

fctc-online-bannerThat kind of conversation represents a very “bolted-on” way of treating safety. Safety becomes a foreign object that doesn’t naturally belong to the rest of the conversation. It becomes a “moment” that we “add on” to the other things we plan to talk about, rather than something that is “built in” to everything else we’re doing.

A better way of handling this is to weave safety into and throughout the conversation. If you’re familiar with a JSA (Job Safety Analysis), then you know it consists of three main parts: (1) What are the steps of the job? (2) What are the hazards of each step? And (3) how do we plan to mitigate those hazards? This is a great way to do hazard analysis, but it’s also a great way to have a discussion about the job itself:BLR

“Guys, walk us through the job today. Who’s doing what? Okay, John, you said you’re going to be maintenancing the boiler today? John, what are the main hazards you think you’ll encounter with that job today? John, how do plan to mitigate those hazards?”

That approach automatically builds safety into and throughout the conversation, and postures safety as a natural part of that conversation – which is infinitely more valuable than the “safety moment” approach.

We’ll look at three more tips next issue, but that’s it for this edition of Recordable INSIGHTS Newsletter. Until next time.


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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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  1. Thought provoking article. Talking Safety Culture different to the General Total Culture of a work Team ,Company or any other group needs clarifying. Culture is the way we do “THINGS” around here. That is everything in doing a Safe and efficient Job. You made a great point of communicating the value of the JSA except the tool is different to what you described . This has changed since the JSA has become a due diligence tool for Management The JSA is to control NEW Hazards which need controlling before starting ,Need Team input. All known hazards should be in the procedures and workers trained in Controlling risks before starting the job. Happy to discuss

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