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We’re All in This Safety Thing Together

Oct. 25, 2019
A safety culture doesn’t start and end with a designated manager—it’s everybody’s responsibility to be a safety leader.

I was running a bit behind as I hiked through the sprawling halls of the San Diego Convention Center to get to a session at last month’s National Safety Congress. By the time I got to the room, even though I was about 10 minutes early, the place was packed, and shortly after I sat down, they announced that the room was at capacity and nobody else would be allowed in the room (they take fire marshal rules very seriously at safety shows).

What topic could account for so many attendees crowded into a regular afternoon breakout session? It was a panel discussion on “Getting Frontline Leaders to Become Safety Leaders.” Panelist Roger Green, former director of EHS with industrial manufacturer ThyssenKrupp NA, neatly summarized the situation from the get-go: “Good, hard workers may not always be good leaders. Leadership is a skill that needs to be developed and encouraged.”

Echoing Green, Steve Curry, corporate EHS manager with flooring products manufacturer Armstrong Flooring, added, “You can’t expect a line supervisor to instinctively know how to be a leader. It’s a skill that has to be learned and supported.”

At some companies—too many companies, agreed the panelists—safety is often one of those “it’s somebody else’s problem” areas, but as Green emphasized, “Safety is not just the responsibility of the person with ‘safety’ in their job title. The more people who are invested in safety at a company, the more advanced that company will be in safety practices. Well-trained frontline leaders are an invaluable asset to a company. Safety is not an added responsibility—everybody needs to be involved in safety.”

“You need organizational buy-in that you’re not only going to invest in safety, but also in developing safety leaders,” explained Kevin Backus, ThyssenKrupp’s senior VP and general counsel. “You don’t have to leave safety just in the hands of EHS professionals. It’s one thing to tell somebody to do something, but quite another to give them the tools to get that accomplished. The perfect place to start with a corporate cultural transformation is safety.”

To that end, ThyssenKrupp launched a company-wide Safety and Leadership Development Program, which to date has trained more than 3,000 employees. “The course is about safety,” Backus noted, “but it’s more about leadership.”

Of course, ThyssenKrupp is a $38 billion multinational with well over 100,000 employees worldwide, but most companies don’t have that kind of financial heft or staff resources to invest in company-wide programs. “Smaller companies are often so focused on their numbers that they find it hard to justify the costs to develop leadership skills in safety people,” observed Chevon Cook, safety manager with Wisconsin Safety Council. His organization works with these types of companies to provide them with the appropriate data to justify an investment in safety culture, such as reductions in lost time, incidents and workers compensation, and other tangible benefits of operating a safer workplace.

Another frequently-heard safety challenge for companies is the attitude of employees who say, “We’ve taken every safety course you asked us to take, so now we know it all.” As Backus acknowledged, “Complacency is dangerous because it’s hard for safety managers to see it coming. You don’t want your workers to get so comfortable that they assume bad things won’t happen. You need to challenge people, get them out of their comfort levels.”

Lee Shelby could tell you something about the attitude of complacency. As a power lineman at a utility company, he was constantly exposed to 13,000 volts of electricity, but he admits he was “a little cocky” and didn’t always follow the safety protocol the job required. While wearing the wrong type of gloves, those 13,000 volts went right through his inadequately protected hands, and he ended up losing both hands. As he states in this month’s cover story, “Being complacent and getting distracted in the workplace can change your life in an instant.” Lee Shelby will be sharing his story as one of the keynote speakers at EHS Today’s 2019 Safety Leadership Conference in November in Dallas, Tex., as he’s now become a leading advocate for workplace safety.

In short, you can have the best PPE, the most advanced technology, the most intensive training programs and the most rigorous EHS protocols and still come up short if one employee—and it just takes one—decides to take a shortcut. “Safety Leader” isn’t just a bold-faced tagline on a business card—it’s a way of life that every employee needs to embrace, every single day.

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