The Campbell Institute

The Campbell Institute: What message is leadership really sending?

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The Campbell Institute at the National Safety Council is the EHS center of excellence. Built on the belief that EHS is at the core of business vitality, the Institute seeks to help organizations, of all sizes and sectors, achieve and sustain excellence. Learn more at thecampbellinstitute.org.

An effective management system combined with strong leadership is essential to developing a strong safety culture and driving safety performance. After more than 10 years of working to strengthen our safety culture at AES Corp., I have learned that you cannot have one without the other. High-quality management systems are successful only when strong leadership is in place to ensure effective implementation and sustainability of processes and programs.

Successful leaders learn to balance quality and production while leveraging their safety management system to create a highly effective organization. When senior leaders, either intentionally or unintentionally, recognize or reward quality and production over safety, people on the front lines of the organization will adapt their decision-making process accordingly. It is this type of “check the box” mentality when it comes to safety that not only impedes the strengthening of your safety culture, but can also lead to tragic consequences.

Several years ago, I led the investigation of a fatal incident. A leader decided to scavenge parts from an out-of-service vehicle to expedite the repair of another vehicle. The vehicle being repaired was needed to transport a piece of production equipment to a critical location. The leader believed that this was a cost-effective way to meet a production objective.

During the investigation of the incident, we learned that the leader did not ensure a proper Job Safety Analysis or Pre-Job Briefing (JSA/PJB) was performed before instructing the crew to start removing the parts from the out-of-service vehicle. The team did not ensure the stability of the vehicle while removing parts from the out-of-service vehicle and the vehicle shifted, crushing one of the workers between the bed of the vehicle and a wall. Several leaders had observed the work being performed, but no one stopped to interact with the workers.

A task that was intended to be cost-effective ended up coming at the highest cost possible – a person’s life. The incident had a devastating impact on the family, friends and colleagues of the victim. In addition, the vehicle’s scheduled repair and transport of the piece of equipment were delayed for weeks. A good management system was in place; however, the leadership didn’t support its correct execution.

What failed? Had the team conducted a proper JSA/PJB and made one simple modification to the work plan, the death could have been prevented and the worker would have returned home to his family. In addition, if one of the crew members performing the work had spoken up, the situation may have been avoided. If a leader had performed a safety walk or stopped the work to question the crew, the incident may have been prevented.

Take the time to reflect honestly on the verbal and non-verbal messages you are sending to the people in your organization. Are you perceived as a leader who truly cares about safety and integrates safety into your day-to-day activities and into the decisions you make? Or are you viewed as a leader who talks about safety only after an incident occurs or because talking about safety is an expectation of your organization? People will know if your commitment to safety is sincere.

Leaders sometimes inadvertently convey that safety adds time and costs to a task or process. The only effective way to manage all aspects of a job or project is to integrate safety into the planning and decision-making process to deliver highly productive and safe work. Give importance to integrating safety into the way you do business and safety will become an integral part of your business’s culture. It could save a life.

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This article represents the independent views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

Pete Batrowny is the managing director of environmental, health, safety and security at AES Corp. AES Corp. is a Fortune 200 global power company that provides affordable, sustainable energy to 17 countries through a diverse portfolio of distribution businesses, as well as thermal and renewable generation facilities. AES’ workforce of 21,000 people is committed to operational excellence and meeting the world’s changing power needs. AES Corp. is a member of the Campbell Institute at the National Safety Council.

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