Safety Leadership

Safety Leadership: Three things that change when you ‘get’ safety

Editor’s Note: Achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace demands strong leadership. In this monthly column, experts from Ojai, CA-based consulting firm BST share their point of view on what leaders need to know to guide their organizations to safety excellence.

One of the best feelings in life is the moment something “clicks” for us. It’s the instant we first begin to recognize the subtle complexities and patterns of a skill we’ve been seeking, whether it’s the rhyming cadence of an algebraic formula or the back-and-forth muscle memory of riding a bike. Suddenly, something that seemed so mysterious and unattainable begins to take a recognizable shape. We are no longer outsiders, but learners. This moment is the first stage of mastery.

Safety leadership is no less experiential. Hexion CEO Craig Morrison says that “getting” safety includes not just understanding the importance of it, but also having a willingness to personally invest yourself in the process. “It is not just a topic for the workplace but is also equally applicable in our personal lives,” Morrison notes.

The goals of safety can seem counterintuitive to anyone trained in achieving profit and productivity. That’s why it’s helpful to look at some of the things that do change as leaders begin to “get” safety. There are three things that start to look and feel different:

  1. Your locus of control. When you’re new to safety, success and goals are typically dictated by the organization, outside forces in regulatory agencies, boards, public opinion and so on. While external standards and drivers can be a useful starting point, they don’t help you in the place where good intentions meet conflicting demands, limited resources and changing exposure. As you learn the language of safety and cultivate a personal value for it, you’re rewarded with an internal compass that helps you navigate uncertainty. Safety activities are no longer focused on meeting the demands of external forces, which are impossible to control. Instead, safety becomes a part of what you are. Safety is something your values drive you to do.
  2. The coherence between safety and everything else. In safety, the ultimate goal is that nothing happens – that things proceed as they are intended with no deviation and subsequent harm to anyone in the process. Although an experienced leader will tell you that it takes a lot (e.g., engagement, operational reliability, discipline) to achieve “nothing’s happening,” the absence of immediate results can make it seem like there’s nothing in common between safety activities and everything else. As you begin to advance in safety disciplines, however, you’ll notice that safety is the key to your organization’s ability to learn and achieve “behavioral reliability” – a critical component necessary for any organization to meet its goals. Safety practices complement other business functions; business and safety cohere. As one executive put it, “We suddenly realized that safety is the first line of defense in our ability to deliver on any promise.”
  3. Your “agency” with respect to safety. How you act on behalf of safety changes dramatically as you gain fluency. At first, leading safety can feel like fighting fires – you respond as things go wrong. As you develop fluency with safety, however, you begin to recognize not just patterns of exposure, but also subtle changes in the operational functions that affect how exposure is managed. As you progress in safety, you move from a passive state, in which you respond as injuries and their contributing factors “just happen,” to an active state of being “deliberate,” in which you seek out opportunities for optimization and improvement across a wide range of factors.

The transition from supporting safety to “getting it” is a learning process that works from the outside in. The more proficient we become at influencing safety and leading injury-free organizations, the more safety becomes a part of who we are and how we approach everything as leaders.

Jim Spigener is a senior vice president with BST. Spigener is a highly sought-after speaker who uses his expertise in leadership and safety change initiatives to advise senior leaders around the globe on safety performance.

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