Too often, many of the problems that exist within a safety culture stem from the lack of effective leadership. Many first line supervisors, department heads and even some plant managers, lack the training and skills to effectively lead employees to accomplish what is necessary for achieving and sustaining a "world class safety culture". This article is about my view of safety leadership, in particular at the plant level and what can be done to improve it. I will also include some real life examples of poor leadership behaviors.
It's so easy to be a critic but, my reason for choosing this topic is not to criticize but to bring into the open something that I have a deep concern with and would like to see improved. It is the continued deterioration of good leadership skills within the safety arena. I have been intimately involved with many different safety cultures over the last 25 years and have repeatedly witnessed poor leadership behaviors and decisions which have caused and continue to cause accidents, injuries and de-motivated employees. I believe there are four fundamental reasons for this deficiency that are directly related to leadership: the lack of vision, the lack of accountability, the lack of trust and improper measurement.
People get promoted usually for demonstrating good work habits and other good traits, but unfortunately oftentimes do not posses or develop the needed skills to lead their employees to achieve a more desirable safety culture. Many supervisors and managers do not have a good understanding of why employees take risks, take shortcuts, commit unsafe acts and develop undesired habits. They also don't know how to motivate these employees to change their behavior. They tend to rely on outdated ideas and ineffective skills that on occasion, and for a short period of time, provide the results they seek so they don't see a need for change and they continue to do what they do and ultimately, nothing changes.
There are four major challenges that interfere with incorporating solid leadership skills within many company cultures. Most everyone in a management position today face various competing priorities for making quality decisions, have too many issues competing for their time, believe in and accept without challenge many similar and universally accepted false assumptions, and do not receive effective leadership training.
The challenge of competing priorities takes management away from making the needed impact to advance their safety culture. One particular priority that competes with solid safety leadership is how high of a value the company places on production. Obviously high quality production is vital for every business, but production at the expense of safety is too often the case. Getting things out the door where "Production is King", can influence decisions due to the emphasis and consequences placed on "the numbers."