Safety Leadership

Safety Leadership: More than a manager: Leaders are needed to avoid organizational complacency


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

In 2008, the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth, GA, exploded, killing 14 people. The Chemical Safety Board investigation results were startling. Since 1967, senior leaders knew the inherent explosion risk of sugar, but did not act on that knowledge.

This story is all too familiar. Over the past two years, similar catastrophic incidents have been reported involving bulk nitrogen used in food processing, ammonium nitrate for agricultural purposes and chemicals used for water purification.

Managers can influence others to make the right decisions and win as a team. Yet, a manager may not necessarily be a good leader, and a leader is not always a people manager. Leaders understand that no product or service is worth damaging the welfare of workers, first responders or the community. They must avoid organizational complacency by stepping up and demonstrating key leadership behaviors, including:

Becoming visibly vulnerable

Nothing kills complacency faster than a vulnerable leader who believes they or their organization can fail, and shares that realization with others. Visibly vulnerable leaders listen to worker concerns. They assign resources to investigate and follow up on what might be subtle signals of potential catastrophe. They then ensure people learn the results and the organization implements the learnings.

(See Chronic unease: A state of mind to manage safety risks in the June issue of Safety+Health for more on vulnerable leaders.)

Changing leadership’s worldview from “Don’t tell me about problems, give me solutions” to “Tell me more, and we’ll solve this together” takes time. Start with setting time during each business update meeting to ask what subtle warning signals or risk factors your team has noticed lately. Make your organization a safe place to recognize issues so that you can provide the right resources to help people overcome these challenges.

Setting boundaries to avoid normalization of deviance

The term “normalization of deviance” describes when organizations relax their risk acceptance criteria rather than identify and correct the underlying causes related to exposure events. Normalization of deviance often starts in one corner of an organization and can spread if left unchecked.

Managers may excel at sharing business objectives, but they can fall short in establishing boundaries on how it ought to be done. Leaders must have boundaries they will not allow others to cross regarding respect for people, an ethical code of conduct, risk-taking, and when a situation changes or introduces inherent risk that could impact the welfare of workers, supply chain viability and the community.

Formal work processes and a governance structure must be established to help communicate, review and validate expectations. Both are a way for people to report deviance and help in managing change with unbiased expertise and leadership oversight.

Clarify roles and escalation pathways

Close calls and events can be symptoms of frontline supervisors and managers feeling pressure to take on a decision-making role to help meet a business objective. In doing so, they are making a decision that should have been evaluated and escalated to a higher level of the organization.

Senior leaders cannot be expected to know every technical detail, but they must be engaged when decisions pose high inherent risk. They must recognize the need to engage scientists, engineers, EHS professionals and other experts to identify risk and potential consequences regarding action and inaction. Leaders must be comfortable with saying “Show me the data” to make sure bias does not become a factor in their decision.

Finally, frontline personnel must have operational discipline to follow procedures and escalate when they see, hear, taste, smell or feel something that is not typical. These situations must be investigated, followed by a structured review and escalation process.


The true reward of investing in these leadership behaviors is to influence every team member to “get in the game.” Organizations must reframe success not only by the services or products they provide, but in the conduct of their leaders.



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

Sarah Eck is the senior process safety development engineer for DEKRA North America ( with experience in building and improving safety programs to reduce catastrophic risk. She is a professional engineer and certified process safety professional.



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