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What will be your safety legacy?

December 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 have shared their point of view on what leaders need to know to guide their organizations to achieve world-class safety performance.

By Colin Duncan

Safety leadership should be a legacy-building business. We need to be able to look ahead to the end of our careers and ask what we will leave behind. Most of what we create – even in the short term – happens when we are not there. We have, at most, a few moments with the majority of people in our organizations. During that time – and during the times we interact with our direct reports, peers and boards – our actions and words signal an agenda. If we are effective, that agenda sticks in people’s minds as they perform their daily tasks and make decisions that affect risk. Some leaders do this well, others less so.

In corner suites and board rooms, our expectations of what safety is and should be have changed. In many organizations, safety has become an integral part of strategy, and leaders are now faced with defining and ensuring operational safety regardless of their backgrounds.

So what makes great safety leadership? There are varying schools of thought. Some say it is about doing the right things, others that it requires knowing the right things. Still others say that great leadership comes just from being passionate about safety.

Our work has shown us that leaders who leave legacies are actually adept at all three.

What you do

Great safety leaders act. Leaders drive safety through conscious and deliberate decision-making that turns understanding of risk into reliable behaviors supporting both personal and process safety. Leaders do this, for example, by encouraging active analysis of data to detect exposure to serious risk, challenging thinking that leads to faulty decisions, or helping the organization develop the ability to quickly respond to and recover from deviations in performance – rather than deviations in outcome.

Leaders are responsible for creating an environment that drives and supports exposure reduction by adopting personal practices that ensure those around them are consistently sensitive to weak signals that may suggest a problem, and persistently uneasy with “status quo” type responses to safety issues.

What you know

Great safety leaders have a working knowledge of safety and operating risk. In many situations, leaders are presented with data that seems to suggest one course of action or none at all. But by knowing the working parts of, say, incident investigation, one can ask and evaluate the efficacy of the analysis and determine whether or not the recommendations make sense. If you are familiar with what lagging indicators do and do not tell you, you are in a better position to detect faulty conclusions or identify worrying trends.

Leaders do not need to be safety experts. They need only to be able to explain the constituent parts of safety and understand their meaning and significance to both safety processes and disciplines and to the people who oversee them. They need to understand the primary, technical and management systems for preventing catastrophic events. They also need sufficient knowledge of essentials such as human factors, culture, behavior, and safety leadership, and be able to converse in core safety concepts such as the hierarchy of controls, James Reason’s lines of defense and root-cause analysis.

What you care about

Great safety leaders find and hold a personal connection to safety. Sadly, too often this comes from someone being seriously injured “on their watch.” Ideally, it is simply a deeply rooted sense of doing the right thing. Whatever that spark, this value is the fuel that sustains you through the uncomfortable moments (e.g., challenging people on a personal level) and the lulls.

Although no magic formula exists for becoming a great leader, at a minimum it requires that we know and care about safety. It also requires persistence. As one executive put it, the question isn’t: What do I want to do in safety? But, rather: What do I want to be remembered for?

Colin Duncan is CEO of global safety consulting firm BST. Duncan drives BST’s global strategy, corporate vision, and the innovation of new methodologies and approaches to deliver sustainable safety improvements to clients.

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