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Every CEO Must Understand These Secrets to Workplace Safety

Brian Fielkow | Feb 5, 2019

Category: Safety

I have had the opportunity to speak to thousands of company executives and safety professionals on the topic of safety leadership. I receive this comment frequently: “I get it, ...

I have had the opportunity to speak to thousands of company executives and safety professionals on the topic of safety leadership. I receive this comment frequently: “I get it, but my CEO does not.” I believe that most CEO’s do understand the importance of safety, but executives are pulled in many directions. At times, the multitude of demands may force safety to the back burner.  While this might be a normal human reaction, CEO’s leading high consequence businesses must never fall victim to this temptation. 

Leading people safely requires tremendous discipline. The leadership skills required to successfully manage safety are the same skills needed to manage top-notch operations: attention to detail, focused execution, standardized and disciplined processes, an understanding of roles, meaningful metrics, personal accountability and alignment around the group mission and vision.

As CEO, your role is to lead consistently with safety as your number one non-negotiable core value. To help, here are five secrets to leading people safely:

Take your front lines with you. Create a compelling and emotional reason for your team to own safety. Speaking only in terms of numbers does not work. Focus on the people involved in accidents, their families and how they are impacted. Take safety from the abstract and attach real humans to the equation. Making it real by putting a face on safety is a very effective way to overcome safety malaise. In addition to the emotional pull, give people a stake in safety success. Tie bonuses, salary, and promotions to safety performance. On the one hand, appeal to people’s best instincts. On the other hand, you’re not in this to please everyone. People who cannot lead or operate safely and who do not buy into your vision must to go.

Look in the mirror. Accept the fact that your company can cause safety failures. That means the organization has a role, usually a huge role, regarding fault when something goes wrong. Some examples include employees developing work-arounds instead of following procedures, the organization not learning from prior events and precursors, senior management giving only lip service to safety, management not knowing what is driving safety performance and the organization using incorrect metrics to gauge safety. Many companies are excellent at pointing fingers and assessing blame—usually targeting the person at the point where the problem occurred. These companies fire or discipline the offender, then move on with no focus on determining root causes and how to prevent the problem in the future.

Change your thinking – Change the outcome. As your company’s leader, you cast an enormous shadow. You are constantly on display. Your words matter far less than your actions. Allow the following principles to change your thinking and guide your actions:

  • Safety must be a core value, not just a priority. Priorities change every day. Values do not. What is competing for safety at your company? Create non-negotiable value alignment that nothing may compete for safety.
  • There must be a leadership obsession with continuous improvement every day—a “chronic unease” with the status quo. Without this you risk complacency creeping in which will undermine your safety culture.
  • Zero is the only acceptable goal. For most aspects of business, 99.9 percent is a pretty compelling standard. Not safety. Zero safety failures is the only goal that is satisfactory. If you accept one preventable accident, you might as well accept one hundred. While you may never reach zero, your team cannot allow you to accept any preventable accidents. A mindset of zero paves the way for excellence, not perfection.
  • You must engage. Safety leadership can’t be delegated. It is your core responsibility.
  • Measure your leading indicators. Measure what drives performance, not just historic losses. The accident rate is the outcome of behaviors, so measure proactive activities like safety meetings, supervisory and peer observations, individual one-on-one discussions, near miss reporting and preventative maintenance.
  • The majority of casualties are caused by at-risk behavior, not a pure failure in facilities or equipment. Rather than examining the conditions of the accident, it is more useful to understand and address the behavior associated with it.
  • Rules, laws and regulations alone do not prevent accidents. Just because you are compliant does not mean you are safe. It takes a culture where every individual worker buys into safety. Safety is about people taking responsibility for their behavior and that of their peers.
  • Great safety is the cornerstone for best-in-class operations. People align with management’s vision and engage at a much higher level when they feel valued and appreciated. When people feel included and that they are making a difference, they will give much higher differential effort to help the group succeed. That means higher productivity, a better customer experience, better resource utilization and care, and better safety results.

Tear Down the Silos. “Safety silos” must be torn down. Safety is not a department; it is a way of life. In a healthy safety culture, safety excellence is everyone’s responsibility. It should be a warning sign if safety problems are thrust upon your safety department and everyone else walks away. Having a safety department in and of itself cannot raise the bar on safety. Your safety department can coach, train, mentor and create accountability. They are your subject-matter experts. That said, only people with their hands on the levers can execute upon safety. These are your operators, managers and frontline employees.

Debunk the safety-or-productivity dichotomy. “You can’t be safe and be productive at the same time, so what do you want: to get the job done, or for us to be safe?” This concept is a fallacy. If you want to have a messed-up operation, just experience unplanned down time from a bad injury or equipment damage. See what being unsafe does to your operation, your bottom line, your customer service, your reputation in the community and your employee engagement. Best-in-class leaders and best-in-class companies know that safety is the cornerstone of great operations. 

Building a better safety culture relies on engaging and empowering our employees. That said, you must accept the fact that you will have people in your organization working against you. These employees must join the mission or leave the company. There is no middle ground.

You will experience safety failures along the way. Naysayers will be quick to use the failures as an indictment of your leadership. Stay the course. Eliminate the noise, and don’t accept defeat.

No matter what we say or do to align our company with the understanding that safety is a core, nonnegotiable value, it doesn’t matter unless our front lines are fully with us. If our employees fail to adopt safety as an ongoing commitment, it won’t take long for the holes in the armor to show up. However, if our people get behind this mission, we are well on our way toward establishing the kind of safety culture that we want, and that will contribute to our bottom-line success. Safety excellence begins and ends with your leadership. Safety success depends on your ability to stand above the crowd and lead with conviction.

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