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From Executives to Frontline Employees, Everyone Should Be a Safety Leader

Toby Graham /
  • Categories: EHS

Who “owns” your organization’s workforce safety program?

If you can answer that question with a single name, title, or department, I’ve got some bad news for you: you’re thinking about safety all wrong.

When safety is in the hands of one person, or siloed in a cluster of offices, it’s not really safety—not the kind that anchors a safety culture. This isn’t a matter of semantics. A true safety culture is more than a lofty ideal or a piece of business jargon. It’s a real, measurable phenomenon—and the key ingredient in preventing falls, spills, and other common, costly workplace incidents.

For a safety culture to exist, it needs to be, well, cultural. It should materialize in every action taken by every member of the organization, from leadership to frontline employees.

“We’re All in This Safety Thing Together”

As Dave Blanchard writes in a recent Safety + Health magazine article, “[a] safety culture doesn’t start and end with a designated manager—it’s everybody’s responsibility to be a safety leader.”

To illustrate this point, Blanchard points to multinational engineering firm ThyssenKrupp, which has implemented a company-wide Safety and Leadership Development Program. According to ThyssenKrupp senior VP and general counsel Kevin Backus, “the course is about safety, but it’s more about leadership”:

“You need organizational buy-in that you’re not only going to invest in safety, but also in developing safety leaders. … You don’t have to leave safety just in the hands of EHS professionals. It’s one thing to tell somebody to do something, but quite another to give them the tools to get that accomplished. The perfect place to start with a corporate cultural transformation is safety.”

Read “We’re All in This Safety Thing Together.”

Safety Culture or Pencil Whipping?

One reason safety gets neglected is that it’s hard work. And it’s never the only priority. There’s too much to do and not enough time to do it. It can be tempting to simply check the box and hope for the best—which is sadly what many organizations end up doing.

Safety professionals sometimes refer to this behavior as “pencil whipping.” To pencil whip is to mark a task as complete without actually completing the task. It means not doing the work but checking the box anyway.

Too often, for example, organizations decide to wrap up safety inspections without taking adequate steps to address problems those inspections have uncovered. It’s also common for safety managers to try to fill out missing records just because they know consultants are coming to visit. As a result, issues get buried until an accident happens or a regulator such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration discovers the truth.

Pencil whipping isn’t just a matter of laziness or due to a shortage of time. There’s a deeper reason behind it: lack of buy-in from leadership. If the organization’s decision-makers don’t seem to care about safety, employees have little incentive to care about it either.

According to KPA safety consultant Armin Dizdarevic:

“If lower-level employees see that management or upper-level management doesn’t care about safety, then they’re not going to put much effort in continuing their previous record or trying to get better. A lot of it comes down to: What does the organization value? If they value safety and training, then they’ll have a strong emphasis on that. If they don’t value it as much, that reflects in their audits and records. You can see that they don’t pay as much attention to it as they could or should have.”

Read “How to Make Sure Your Safety Program Is More Than Checked Boxes.”

Safety Leaders: Who’s at the Table?

The workforce safety relationship goes both ways: safety professionals need a seat at the executive table, and leaders need to have a role in safety. High-performing organizations tend to have champions outside of EHS who advocate for and drive the program.

Take one of KPA’s clients, a large company with more than 200 locations across the US. The organization wanted to make sure their investment in safety technology paid off. So, their vice president of EHS took it upon himself to track how different locations were performing—which were seeing issues and which were doing the right thing.

The VP decided to use a carrot-and-stick approach. Every morning, he generated reports and publicized each location’s results in company-wide communication. He then conducted outreach to the locations that needed improvement.

He also engaged with the head of the operations to tie safety to other business outcomes. At sales meetings, for instance, managers would discuss recent injury rates and corrective and preventive actions, showing salespeople that the company was looking out for people and could take on even more customers.

The company had the budget and the software in place to improve safety performance, but until there was a champion, it was difficult to move the needle.

Champions don’t have to be executives. They can come from anywhere in the organization. Perhaps it’s the head of manufacturing, who sees the link between safety and efficiency; or the head of marketing, who sees safety as a differentiator worthy of promotion. In any case, when someone beyond the safety team takes the lead, they help others realize that EHS is about more than doing the bare minimum of abiding by regulations.

Read “The Value of Executive Buy-In in Promoting Workplace Safety.”

Safety Culture Starts Here

I’ll ask again: Who “owns” your organization’s workforce safety program?

The answer shouldn’t be “Nancy” or “Steve” or even “that team of people over there.” It should be “everyone who works here—because we’re all responsible for each other’s safety.”

Ready to move on from empty words and put a real safety culture into practice? Start here.

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