Prevention of Serious Injuries and Fatalities Must Start with Leadership

Jan. 8, 2016
You can build safer facilities, but they won't be maintained without a strong safety culture, and culture flows from leadership.

Safety performance is a complex matter. That's actually the good news: a great many variables mean you have a lot of options to address serious injuries and fatalities (SIF) and improve the health and wellbeing of the people with whom you work.

You already know that changes in facilities, management systems, behavior, culture and leadership each impact safety outcomes. Safety excellence demands that you address all of them, yet we know we can't do everything at once. To further complicate things, these factors are not discreet but intensely interrelated. So where to start? How to pick among them? What first move sets you up for success at every stage?

The short answer is: Each of these possible avenues loops back to leadership. Sure, you can build safer facilities, but they won't be maintained without a strong safety culture, just like you can improve your safety management systems, but who will use them if they don't value them?

So maybe you lead with culture. Indeed, many positive outcomes flow from improvements in culture, but culture itself flows from leadership. Or maybe you concentrate on the necessary conditions for safer behavior. That's good. Behavior is critical. But while behavior closely correlates with performance, it's most productive to see behavior not so much as the driver but as the result of facilities, systems, culture and leadership.

Consider Volkswagen tampering with emissions performance. Consider that their engineers were so afraid to say they couldn't meet targets set by the CEO that taking illegal actions like hiking up the tire pressure and coding the emissions software to misreport represented a more appealing alternative than acknowledging a goal wouldn't be achieved.

That behavior was shaped by acts of leadership. It was informed by any number of messages about when to speak up and what was acceptable and how to manage setbacks. It didn't have to be official policy, or even said directly, for the engineers to arrive at an understanding of what leadership expected, and act accordingly.

The Role of Leadership

Let us emphasize the role of leadership in creating a culture where such behavior became possible. An institution's corporate ethics and value for social responsibility come from the top. The same is true for values like innovation and workplace safety. Culture itself comes from the top, and leaders always are creating culture – always, for better or for worse, whether they mean to or not.

It happens in the tone of an email and the allocation of resources. What you say and what you do, not to mention what you don't say or do, communicate your values to the people who work with you. Your actions and inactions already are influencing health and safety. The safety culture you create matters. Make sure you are sending the messages you want to be heard.

The match between what leadership says and what leadership does particularly is relevant to safety management systems. Safety management systems, including fall protection and safety rules, require leadership or they simply won't be used. It's leadership that makes equipment available and its proper use routine, even when competing pressures to work fast and cheap are intense.

When Juan Cerezo fatally fell from a 14th floor façade in Manhattan in September 2015, the Department of Buildings opened an investigation into the availability of a safety harness or other fall protection at the jobsite and whether there was a mandate for workers like Cerezo to use them.

When a retaining wall collapsed that same month at a jobsite in Brooklyn, burying Fernando Vanegas under cinder blocks and killing him, the tragedy occured after a series of safety complaints to the Department of Buildings, including workers abating asbestos without protective masks or suits.

If a worker is in the position where their only protection is behavior, management already has failed that worker on a number of fronts.

Facility Improvements and Leadership

Facilities improvements require leadership, too. They demand vision to create and commitment to maintain.

Congress failed for years to pass a reauthorization bill or re-evaluate safety measures when, in 2008, a passenger train and a freight train collided in Los Angeles and killed 25 people while injuring dozens more. In reaction, Congress attached the reauthorization bill to a rail safety measure and within a month it was law.

But urgency faded after that: The Federal Railroad Administration took months to review safety plans, and the Federal Communications Commission delayed the construction of necessary transmission poles for a year. The technology the safety measure was meant to implement – positive train control (PTC) – has been poorly adopted, couldn't necessarily communicate between railroads, was estimated to prevent fewer than 5 percent of accidents and now is out of date. What's current is the end-of-the-year deadline to implement it, and the impending suspension of rail service by railroads unable to comply in time.

Safer facilities only improve safety when they are well-conceived, well-executed and well-maintained. Leadership must inform each of those stages.

Upgrading the quality of safety leadership in an organization is a process that starts with understanding the pieces – how they fit together – and then how to intervene most efficiently and effectively. We start with leadership because of its influence among the other pieces, and we find leadership is the place to go first, both in organizational improvement generally and safety in particular.

Dedication to safety leadership sets up sustainable advancement in safer culture, safer behavior, safer management systems and safer facilities. We will need all those advances as we strive to reduce serious injuries and fatalities. We start with leadership, because it secures a foundation on which we can continue to build.

Tom Krause and Kristen Bell are the authors of "7 Insights into Safety Leadership." They founded Krause Bell Group ( from a commitment to prevent workplace injuries and fatalities through effective safety leadership and safe decision-making.

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