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SLC 2023 Preview: How One Person can Influence Safety

July 5, 2023
The scope of workplace safety is changing, and everybody—yes, everybody—needs to get involved.

Safety doesn’t happen by accident. Neither do efforts to create a workplace where people feel empowered to speak up and are comfortable to be themselves.

Those of you who’ve been in the field for a while know this has always been the case, but safety has assumed a role of greater importance in the last few years because of larger worldwide issues (e.g., COVID-19, gun violence, racism, supply chain and labor shortages).

Staying on top of changing regulations, paperwork and safety hazards can feel daunting, even overwhelming. But don’t despair. One person can make a positive influence on workplace safety.

EHS Today spoke with Ben Andrew, Ed.D., vice president of occupational health and safety at NFI Industries, one of the largest privately-held logistics companies in the U.S., about how safety professionals can learn to lead in a changing landscape. He also spoke about how hybrid work and diversity, equity and inclusion are affecting safety.

Andrew, CSP, STS, CIT, will be a keynote speaker at the 2023 Safety Leadership Conference, being held in Orlando, Fla., from Sept. 18-20. More information, including registration, can be found here. Below is a preview of what to expect from his presentation.

EHS Today: We spend a lot of time talking about the importance of culture from a broader perspective. How can one person influence an organization's safety culture (for better or for worse)?

Andrew: It was President John F. Kennedy who said, “One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.” As individual contributors to organizations at large, we each play a role in organizational development. In a time where bringing your “authentic self” to work is encouraged, that also comes with a level of influence and social responsibility.

As it relates to worker safety, the day-to-day behaviors we exhibit can enable safe or unsafe practices around us. Practices are often a reflection of the cultural norms in the workplace. One person influences an organization’s safety culture by personifying the care and concern for a safe environment. From a leadership perspective, higher positions have greater influence potential. It must be noted, however, that influence isn’t exclusive to title.  

How does the safety culture affect the organization as a whole?

No matter how we frame it, safety is a people-based construct. The culture of safety in an organization is the shared values, behaviors and perceptions that are relevant to safe work. Safe work enables workers to mitigate risk and accomplish objectives. When objectives are accomplished, the potential for growth increases, and the overall business is positively impacted.

What are some ways that safety leaders can be better prepared for tomorrow?

Safety leaders can be better prepared for tomorrow by learning from yesterday, implementing those learnings today, and understanding the challenges ahead. In order to experience the benefit of preparation, this must be a continual process, as the past informs our readiness for the future.

How do you define workplace safety, and how do you view your role (or measure your success) as a safety leader?

Workplace safety can be understood in a number of ways. My definition is: A systematic and collaborative effort of avoiding injury, mitigating risk, and advancing the health and well-being of people at work. I approach the concept from the systems thinking perspective. Systems thinking is about investigating the factors and interactions that contribute to outcomes.

Part of my role as a safety leader is to ensure the right systems are in place, as well as the right personnel to support those systems. With the goal of sustaining a safe environment, safety leaders must be cognizant of systems and how they impact the people we serve. It is rare for safety to be one-dimensional.

What do safety leaders need to understand about the changing workplace landscape, including hybrid and remote work?

A changing landscape requires the capacity to be dynamic. In our industry, the ability to adjust with change is absolutely necessary to have. In order to remain competitive in EHS today, one must be agile, knowledgeable and willing to expand in knowledge. Take a course, get a certification, attend conferences, etc. Professional development equips us for the approaching waves and roller coasters of business. 

Why do safety leaders need to help create a diverse, equitable and inclusive (DEI) environment?

We have the unique opportunity to work with and among a variety of cultures. This level of engagement provides the benefit of gleaning ideas and perspective, which moves the needle of creativity. Creativity is a by-product of employees feeling valued and having a sense of belonging.

When employees feel they belong, organizational culture improves. When employees feel they don’t belong, they experience an increase of tension in the workplace [and] low psychological safety. [As a result,] their performance is negatively impacted. These are precursors to distracted work and complacency, which lead to accidents and injuries.

These are not areas or topics that safety professionals have historically been focused on. Why do you think the role of safety leaders is expanding?

Society is evolving and will continue to do so. Due to diversity challenges and adversities observed across the globe, DE&I has grown in interest. Because these matters impact people and how people work, they fall into the scope of the safety professional. As problem solvers, we must be in alignment with workplace solutions as well as workplace safety.

How can safety leaders balance efforts to simultaneously change the culture both from the top-down and bottom-up, as different groups often have different priorities?

It all goes back to culture being a focal point of our collective and individual efforts. Peter Drucker once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Culture isn’t changed overnight. It requires an honest look at the current state, and intentional efforts by key stakeholders.

Safety leadership is often the consulting element within the organization. While our internal customers and clients may have shifting priorities, our number 1 priority remains consistent: people. Safety leadership must be people first at all costs.

What's one thing you hope attendees learn from your keynote presentation at the Safety Leadership Conference (SLC)?

I hope SLC 2023 attendees develop a greater appreciation for creativity, diversity and unique individual contribution. Safety professionals have tremendous value and experience. May that experience inform the confidence needed to do the job effectively.

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