Safety Leadership

Safety Leadership: 6 important actions to move safety forward

Editor’s Note: Creating a dialogue, keeping the focus, asking the right questions – achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace demands strong leadership. Throughout 2013, 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.

The beginning of every New Year is a time for looking ahead. We consider what we want to accomplish and what we will do differently, both personally and professionally. As safety leaders, that activity takes on a special significance: Our “resolutions” help determine the quality of systems that protect people’s lives and livelihoods. Knowing where to focus, however, is no easy task. Safety has grown far beyond the “programs” focus of past years. Emerging issues – the looming shortage of safety talent, the need for a strategic infrastructure, or resolving the tension between what we need from leaders and what we’ve conditioned them to deliver – are too complex for single-step solutions. The good news is you need not solve every aspect of an issue to make a big difference. Here are six actions that provide an excellent starting point for addressing some of today’s most pressing safety challenges:

Create an aggregate metric for serious injuries and fatalities – SIFs tend to have different causes than lower-severity injuries, and require different solutions to address them. Unfortunately, traditional metrics seldom provide adequate data for intervention. Institutionalize the concept of an SIF rate and give this rate high visibility. First, categorize incidents as having SIF exposure or not. Then, calculate a rate in the same way you would a regular incident rate but using the number of SIF exposure incidents. Gather data on this rate for the past two or three years and going forward.

Capture and analyze weak signals predictive of catastrophic events – The signs of disaster in process industries are too often only seen in retrospect. Patterns of low-level events that signal increased risk can exist for days or weeks – or longer – but go undetected because they are below the threshold for investigation. Increase your organization’s sensitivity to these signals by developing a system for identifying, tracking and analyzing “weak signals” of increased exposure to catastrophic failure.

Develop a safety strategy that transcends what is “expected” of you – Many leaders approach safety from an external locus of control, letting safety’s agenda be set by others. Work on developing a legacy-building (versus output-based) mindset that drives safety because it’s the right thing to do. Start by defining your organization’s vision for safety: What does safety mean to us, why does it matter and what would it look like fully realized?

Create a comprehensive model for safety leadership – What leaders learned that got them where they are frequently serves them poorly when they tackle safety. Leaders are promoted for their ability to produce, not for building a legacy. Help leaders overcome the dissonance between learned behaviors and what they “ought” to do with a complete model of safety leadership. Define what great safety leaders know, do and care about – and establish systems to help leaders unlearn old behaviors, then recalibrate, learn and relearn new ones.

Put your best people into safety roles – There is a coming shortage of technical expertise to fill organizational needs. At the same time, there also is too much focus on technical skills to meet the safety challenges ahead. As safety becomes more strategic, organizations will need safety professionals who can act as advisor and coach to the chief officer. Begin bridging the gap by recruiting high-potential employees into safety roles.

Value, capture and share every action that addresses risk – We are often asked how organizations get to be great at safety. The answer is that they first became great at learning. Set a target of not only becoming great at safety, but staying there. Develop organizational learning for safety with a focus on the actions that address either our understanding or mitigation of risk.

Moving safety forward doesn’t mean overnight changes. It begins with smaller steps that set the stage for what comes next. The key is to think long term. Focus on gains that better position your organization to meet challenges now and in the future.

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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