Leadership: Leading with Safety

Safety leaders have a unique opportunity to build a platform for organizational excellence and integrity.

From a generation ago, when it was the purview of a handful of specialists, safety has evolved today into a whole-organization endeavor. Industry is enjoying unprecedented lows in injury rates, thanks in no small part to the efforts of workers and their team leaders in reducing exposure at the ground level.

At the same time, senior executive leaders, who always have been interested in safety results, are very responsive to learning new ways that they personally can influence safety outcomes. This extends from plant managers to boards of directors. This development certainly is beneficial to existing safety activities. However, it also implies a new meaning and reach for safety performance. It is our view, and that of many organizations we work with, that safety presents a unique opportunity for advancing not only the health and well-being of workers, but also the health and well-being of the organization itself.

Why Safety Leadership Matters

Executives today are faced with a rapidly changing business climate that is shaping all aspects of organizational life. In addition to safety-related issues such as the threat of terrorism, the fear of potential pandemics and the need to demonstrate environmental responsibility, organizations also must contend with new demands on organizational functioning and structure. For example, shifting worker demographics are making employee recruiting, training and retention a greater challenge. Enactment of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act has put a spotlight and shareholder attention on the ethics underlying core business practices. Increasing globalization is testing every organization's ability to convey values and standards across continents.

In this context, worker safety may seem to be merely a piece of a larger puzzle. The reality is the health and safety of workers underpins the ability of any company to claim excellence in its dealings with customers, employees, investors and the public.

Safety has become a first line of defense in corporate ethics and integrity. As one of our clients expressed it: "If we can't do safety right, what can we do well?"

Conversely, if we do provide a safe workplace, our delivery on that promise lays a foundation for organizational integrity and excellence in strategic, financial and operational performance. And integrity in these areas pervades the organization as a manifestation of our intended climate and culture.

Effecting the kind of safety performance that defines an organization can only be done by a company's leaders. Not surprisingly, studies of long-term initiatives show a strong correlation between safety performance and leadership. Along with culture, the quality of leadership is a determining factor in outstanding safety outcomes. Leaders determine priorities, shape the organizational culture, provide the resources and foster the talent that drives the engine of safety performance. Leaders also source and champion a larger vision of safety, a vision that safety is the means by which a high-performance and supremely ethical culture can be developed for the organization.

Leading Ahead

Today's leader is at an advantage. Safety has matured as a performance dimension such that it is now discussed not just on the shop floor, but also at the level of operating management, the C-suite and the board room. Safety practices have developed to the extent that leading indicators are more precise and more actionable than any previously available. Ongoing research allows us to define the cultural factors that influence safety outcomes and the leadership practices that shape culture. Taken together, these advances mean safety contributes to business ethics, to risk management, to performance improvement and to strategy implementation.

The opportunity for the safety professional is to show the organization broadly how safety excellence will support the larger objective of building an organization with integrity and competence ... to "lead with safety." For this strategy to reach its potential benefit, safety professionals need to understand what it takes to be a great safety leader. And they need to be able to pass this knowledge and skill along to leaders throughout the organization.

This "Leadership" column will address the core issues that underlie excellence in safety leadership. We will examine the relationship of the safety leader to the broader organizational climate and culture, the best practices effective safety leaders engage in and the knowledge safety leaders need to have in order to function effectively as organizational leaders.

Psychologist Thomas Krause, Ph.D., is chairman of the board of BST, a global safety performance consulting firm. Krause has conducted research and interventions in the use of performance improvement methods for accident prevention, culture change, leadership development and other targeted applications. He has authored several books and articles on safety and leadership.

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