For the past 20 years the author and his associates have worked with over 1,600 organizations to improve safety performance. In the course of that work, we have discovered that organizations optimize their efforts when they provide and support strong roles at each of three core roles: the front-line employee, supervisory and senior manager levels. These three roles, when appropriately engaged, make up a cord of three strands that is not easily broken.

Of these three areas, the leadership role has proved to be both the most impactful for safety improvement, as well as the most complex to understand and influence. One striking example of this is seen in the study of sites using the same improvement methodology. Even when compared by industry, site size, and systems, some organizations achieve steady improvement while others consistently struggle. More than any other factor, the quality of the organization's leadership, in particular its influence on the organizational culture, determined the level of success achieved.

While it is generally recognized that leadership is important to performance, the "how" of that leadership is often debated. What makes a leader effective at influencing and improving safety? What are the qualities of such a leader? What are the key tasks that a leader must perform in order to generate desired results?

While this paper will focus on these questions as it pertains to senior leaders, the principles discussed are applicable to any level in the organization.

How Leadership Influences Safety

How is it that safety leadership assures performance improvement?

The primary activity of safety initiatives, whether at the site or corporate level, is to reduce the amount of exposure that occurs in the workplace. While not all exposure is equal in terms of severity potential, all incidents result from exposure to hazards and reducing exposure is the primary mechanism of safety improvement. Exposure arises from management and work system problems and the pressures of the organizational climate. These lead to hazards in the workplace and worker exposure. Leaders directly and indirectly impact systems and climate, and thereby hazards and exposure.

In order to understand these connections, the following sections present findings from ongoing research that answer some of the critical questions surrounding safety leadership.

The Four Elements of Successful Safety Leadership

At its most basic, leadership is about establishing a direction and helping people to move in that direction. Practically speaking, leadership comes down to two tasks:

  • Getting subordinates to do the right work the right way

  • Maintaining a successful relationship with the people doing that work.

In many organizations, particularly in the area of safety, the two tasks appear to be at odds with each other. Oftentimes leaders believe that doing one well means sacrificing the other. While there is undeniably a tension that must be balanced between these two tasks, we have found that the leaders in organizations who perform both of these tasks well are able to maintain a healthy and appropriate balance.

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