NSC: Influencing Safety Culture

At the Oct. 4 opening session of the 2010 National Safety Council (NSC) Congress and Expo in San Diego, keynote speaker Michael Abrashoff, former navy commander and author, told attendees that when it comes to safety leadership, they need to forget about what they don’t have control over and instead focus on what they can influence – namely, the people and the culture.

When Abrashoff was put in command of the USS Benfold, it was one of the worst performing ships in the Navy fleet. The ship had low retention rates and high disciplinary rates, and even the sailors themselves said they didn’t feel safe. At first, Abrashoff thought the situation was hopeless.

“I don’t get to pick and choose my missions, I have zero input into how much budget we’re given,” he said. “The only variable is my crew.”

Abrashoff decided to focus not on new, complex programs, but rather on small, everyday things. One of his first acts was to tell all 310 sailors in the crew that no matter their age, seniority or rank, they were authorized, encouraged and empowered to challenge what is happening on that ship and make it a safer place to work. The goal, he said, was to make the crew feel that they had ownership and felt personally accountable for the safety of their shipmates.

“The day I took command, I did not have any great leadership strategies in mind. I just knew we weren’t in the place we needed to be. I never wanted to have to write the parents of any of my sailors that their sons and daughters weren’t coming home because we weren’t giving our best,” he explained. “Our job as leaders is to engage a diverse work force [that is] multigenerational, multicultural, and get them to have the same sense of urgency in operational safety and excellence.”

During his tenure, Abrashoff turned things around. He reduced the 31 workers’ compensation cases to two and 28 disciplinary cases to only five. Most of all, he created an environment where the sailors took ownership of safety and felt confident in their performance.

“I wanted to catch sailors doing something great so I could look them in the eye and thank them for their good work [instead of catching them doing something wrong]. I can’t promote them or gives them bonuses. The only form of recognition I had is to thank them. [That] means a heck of a lot to the people on the front line,” he said.

“Your people are volunteers just like my people are volunteers,” Abrashoff told NSC attendees. “Give them a reason to follow us, so they know we are looking out for them.”

We’re All Leaders

“I’m no different from anyone in this room,” Abrashoff added. “All of us are leaders. All of us are captains. There are so many things we can’t influence. But the one thing we do have the ability to influence is our team, our crew, our shipmates.

“When you’re here at the sessions, spend some time thinking about what your own leadership story is about, all the things that go into it and make you a success today,” he continued. “Try to anticipate what the battlefield is going to look like 5 years from now, then put things in place to be successful in the future.”

The more Abrashoff listened to his crew, the more he witnessed the culture change. This lesson could apply to the work of any EHS professional.

“There are some things we have absolutely no control over. Get over it. Focus on the things we have the ability to influence,” he said. “Every one of us has a leadership story to write, and it’s a darn good story. We owe it to ourselves and our people to make it better.”

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