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Safety Leadership

Safety Leadership: The journey ahead: Where we need to focus now

January 1, 2014

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Editor’s Note: Achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace demands strong leadership. Throughout 2014, 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 world-class safety performance.

As another year begins, safety leaders have much to be proud of. Across industry, organizations are enjoying record-low injury rates, a place for safety on the agenda and greater safety literacy across more employees than ever before. The journey that safety has been on over the past 30 years has taught us what it takes to embed performance discipline into our organizations. It’s that very knowledge that will serve us in continuing to reduce risks and in meeting future challenges. As we go into 2014 and beyond, it is helpful to take stock of what we have learned and assess where we go now.

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Safety leaders have become experts at change. We’ve learned how to design robust and sustainable management systems and to integrate them with advancing technology. We’ve learned how to create behavioral reliability and how to garner the engagement and participation of our entire workforce in sustaining those developments. Lately, we have changed how supervisors lead and how managers engage, and in doing so have built cultures that foster high levels of performance. That said, we face some tangible challenges as we begin 2014:

  • Continuing to grow and develop the talent that got us here. Ensuring adequate safety expertise is essential to furthering the progress we’ve made. But with fierce (and growing) competition for talent, safety leaders must have a disciplined approach that builds bench strength across the organization to meet the challenges of the next decade and beyond.
  • Using data and analytics to better inform safety decision-making. Technology is changing how organizations monitor and measure every aspect of performance. But more data doesn’t necessarily mean more information. Fluency in data analysis principles (for example, knowing the difference between causation and correlation or understanding statistical significance) will determine whether that data becomes insight or noise.
  • Helping all leaders build a legacy. As safety grows in strategic importance, so must every leader’s ability to extend his or her influence. Every interaction with direct reports, peers, and boards informs the daily tasks and decisions that affect risk. We need to calibrate our leaders around their safety leadership vision and help them recognize how to ensure the right thing happens when they can’t be there. Legacy building is what will allow us to transition to our next major challenge.
  • Learning how to stay safe. Safety improvement is inherently a learning process. Up until now, organizations have largely focused on learning to be safe – creating the fundamental systems and processes that reduce risk. As we get better at safety performance, we also have to learn how to stay safe – that is, how to create new knowledge and use that to challenge and adapt our mental models and systems to better address risk.
  • Anticipating risk. For us to meet any of the previous challenges, we have to understand what we do know and worry about what we don’t. Despite the great progress we have made, there are still nearly 4,400 workplace fatalities annually, and catastrophic events continue despite sophisticated systems to prevent them. It’s the obsession with being diligent – and even slightly paranoid – that will allow us to ensure that we use every mechanism available to identify, understand, mitigate and eliminate risk.
  • Sharing what we’ve learned. Issues such as distracted driving, employee wellness and others are redefining traditional boundaries between safety at work and safety “outside the gates.” As leaders, we have an obligation to take what we’ve learned into hospitals, schools and communities, sharing information on how to stay safe.

What we know and what we have learned will help us not only in safety, but also in supporting our organizations and colleagues in meeting the challenges they face. Addressing these issues helps us build on our successes and allows us to continue standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before.

Colin Duncan is CEO of global safety consulting firm BST, a charter member of the Campbell Institute. Duncan drives BST's global strategy, corporate vision and new approaches to deliver sustainable safety improvements to clients.

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