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Safety Leaders Aren’t Like Everybody Else

Dec. 5, 2018
Bridging the divide between safety and the C-suite is a risky business.

What is it that makes safety professionals different from their fellow managers and supervisors at a company? We all know how highly regarded (and compensated) financial wizards are; product designers are routinely praised for their innovative spirit; engineers are celebrated for their ability to solve any kind of structural problem; and chief executives are lauded for their long-term strategic vision. But what are safety leaders best known for?

“Safety leaders have a lot more on their plates and a lot more responsibility that their peers don’t have,” says Ed Foulke, partner with the law firm Fisher Phillips and former head of OSHA. “They are directly responsible for the lives of their employees.”

Every employee makes mistakes, Foulke points out, but “our job as safety professionals is to keep our employees from getting hurt or killed when they make mistakes.”

Foulke, along with Barry Spurlock, an attorney and assistant professor at Eastern Kentucky University, was one of the speakers at EHS Today’s recent Safety Leadership Conference 2018 in Louisville, Ky. Together they addressed the many and significant ways that safety impacts on a company’s financial performance, and how safety leaders can earn a seat at the table if they learn to speak the language of the C-suite.

And that includes the use of the word “safety” itself. As Foulke and Spurlock see it, safety leaders should get comfortable with using the word “risk,” which is very much an example of corporate-speak. After all, as Spurlock says, “We do two things as safety leaders: We identify risk and we manage risk.”

Safety actually protects a company’s bottom line, Foulke says. “Safety should be managed as a profit center, not a line item. We should start treating risk and safety management as a business function.”

The emerging ISO 45001 standard requires that safety and operations people need to work together, “and historically that hasn’t really happened much,” he observes. But operations people will discover the importance of recognizing and avoiding safety risks because losing workers to injuries has a direct and negative impact on productivity and profitability.

During his SLC 2018 presentation, Spurlock listed “Ten Things Executives Should Know about Traditional Safety Metrics”:

1. The metrics are often influenced by luck.

2. They can be manipulated.

3. They don’t prescribe what went wrong.

4. They have limited diagnostic value.

5. They have limited impact on stakeholders.

6. They’re often inconclusive for safety failures.

7. They could be impacted by OSHA discrimination risk.

8. They don’t align with modern EHS management systems.

9. Their original purpose may not be indicative of current trends.

10. They don’t drive high performance.

It’s vitally important, Spurlock says, that a company’s policies and procedures do not conflict with its safety mission, vision and values. To that end, he recommends that safety be integrated into all aspects of a company’s general management programs and processes.

“Great safety leaders,” he emphasizes, “artfully determine why risks remain hidden, and then do whatever is necessary to remedy that problem.”

About the Author

Dave Blanchard | Editor-in-Chief / Senior Director of Content

During his career Dave Blanchard has led the editorial management of many of Endeavor Business Media's best-known brands, including IndustryWeek, EHS Today, Material Handling & Logistics, Logistics Today, Supply Chain Technology News, and Business Finance. In addition, he serves as senior content director of the annual Safety Leadership Conference. With over 30 years of B2B media experience, Dave literally wrote the book on supply chain management, Supply Chain Management Best Practices (John Wiley & Sons, 2021), which has been translated into several languages and is currently in its third edition. Prior to joining Endeavor/Informa/Penton, he spent a decade covering the artificial intelligence industry. He is a frequent speaker and moderator at major trade shows and conferences, and has won numerous awards for writing and editing. He is a voting member of the jury of the Logistics Hall of Fame, and is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. 

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