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Safety Leadership: The art of the message

October 1, 2012

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Editor’s Note: Creating a dialogue, keeping the focus, asking the right questions – achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace demands strong leadership. Throughout 2012 in Safety+Health, experts from Ojai, CA-based consulting firm BST will share their point of view on what leaders need to know to guide their organizations to achieve world-class safety performance.

By Kristen Bell

It was a bold idea. But the words weren’t what caught people’s attention. O’Neill made safety the primary measure of leadership performance. Accountants were told not to equate finances with people. For managers, there would be no excuses for poor safety – even budget. If something was a hazard, it was to be fixed, period. O’Neill gave labor leaders his home phone number and told them to call day or night if managers were not living up to these expectations.

When a worker called late one evening about the hazards of a conveyer belt that had been broken for three days, O’Neill was on the phone with the plant’s manager the same night. That conveyer belt was back online by 5 a.m. As O’Neill later recounted, that was when people knew he “meant it.”

You don’t have to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company to recognize the power of a good message. When you lead, your words and actions send a message about what is important. The difficulty is getting your idea across in a clear and compelling way. O’Neill’s tenure is still remembered today not because he articulated an idea, but because he showed people what that idea looked like.

Creating our story

An effective safety message is really a story. It’s a way of helping people rethink what safety is. To tell that story, every leader needs his or her own answer to the question: “Why is safety important to me?” For some leaders, that story comes from seeing someone seriously hurt or killed on the job, or from experiencing a close call themselves. For others, it comes from a deeply rooted conviction developed over many years. There are a number of ways to find or develop your own story. For example: Looking at your own experience with safety, visiting an employee in the hospital and asking him to share his story, or setting aside five minutes a day to find a new reason why safety is important to you.

Drawing on the principles of transformational leadership, your story becomes a way to influence, challenge, inspire and engage:

  • Let your values show. When you tell your story, start at least three sentences with the words, “I believe …” This will let people see the kind of person you are, and (hopefully) they share your values and beliefs.
  • Challenge what is “possible.” People often are limited by their own assumptions. In telling your story, include at least one question that causes people to think about safety in a new way.
  • Talk about the future. People are uplifted by positive language and real hope for a better future. When you tell your story, use positive language and include a confident message that looks ahead.
  • Help others develop their own stories. Everyone needs their own compelling reason for investing in safety, and every person is motivated differently. Work with individuals on their safety messages, helping them develop and practice their own ways to express who they are, what they value and the compelling reasons why safety is important to them.

Shared experience – story – is foundational to change. It is what makes safety personal. And it helps us remember why we do what we do.


As a vice president with BST, Kristen Bell designs and leads strategic initiatives that help reduce fatalities and injuries, strengthen safety culture, and improve overall organizational effectiveness.

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