An Example of Leadership Success: Putting Safety First

It’s easy to preach “safety is number one” when the sky is blue, but what you do when the sky goes grey is what really matters. This third blog is dedicated to highlighting one leader’s example of what it means to be a safety leader.

Most companies that put employees in hazardous work environments have some version of the slogan: “Safety is a core value of our company,” but it is rare to truly see it in action. Most often, the opposite is seen. Organizations cut work forces, slim down training and development of people, overburden leaders with admin work (preventing them from getting into the field and coaching), provide inadequate tools and resources, create punitive safety management systems, and promote management by fear and exception. To truly have safety as a core value means putting it above all else. 

Pat found himself in a situation that tested this commitment to safety. It started at a leader check-in, where Pat asked the crew to stop working and have a conversation around safety. It began simply enough, Pat asked how things were going and led a discussion focused on safety through personal and work examples. However, it was when Pat asked, “What are things you see that get in the way of keeping safety as the top priority?” that things got interesting. One of the employees described a situation where a contractor company was not providing the tools/equipment necessary to keep that company’s employees safe. This began an emotional conversation as the contractor employees shared concerns about potential retaliation if Pat brought this up. Initially, they asked Pat not to do anything about it.

As Pat led a conversation about their concerns, he displayed some critical leader behaviors: 

Actively listened. During the conversation, Pat asked open-ended questions, took notes, and repeated what he had heard multiple times. This allowed him to get a full grasp of the situation and what the group’s concerns were. He heard examples of how the contractor company had a history of “getting back” at employees when they raised concerns about safety or asked for equipment. This led to the contractor employees being concerned about reporting, and it also created a tension point within the group. Pat used his questioning skills to hear from everyone, digging into their concerns and ensuring they felt listened to. 

Focused on the organization’s (and his) commitment to safety. After Pat had the necessary information, he led a discussion about what it means to put safety first. He talked about his personal responsibility to ensure everyone in his division has what they need to keep themselves safe. He and the team came up with a plan to address the immediate safety issue before anyone returned to work. Once everyone agreed that the plan ensured everyone’s safety, he turned to the root cause of the contractor company not providing what the workers needed in the first place. He asked the group, “What can we do as a group to ensure this does not happen again?” This led to a plan where he and several of Pat’s employees would write an ethics complaint and turn it into the organization. He would personally follow up with the ethics group to determine what course of action would be taken and report back to the group. While observing this meeting, I remember him saying, “I know this is a tough situation, but it is in these situations where we truly live out safety as a core value. If I do nothing, then it says, “Safety is not important when things are hard.” I will not let that happen. Safety is number one. We will ensure this does not happen again.” I found myself thoroughly impressed by this example of safety leadership in action. When we left, Pat stated, “I had no idea that was going to happen, and I felt nervous having such a hard conversation. But this is what it takes to lead safe production effectively. I had to do something.”

These critical behaviors were a powerful display of what it means to have a high-performing safety culture. The group had a renewed since of pride, having helped develop a solution to a hard problem, while keeping their fellow contractor co-workers safe from potential retaliation. Pat used his commitment to safety as a core value and his active listening skills to foster trust with his team. Any leader, or organization, who says “safety is a priority” should consider emulating these critical behaviors. 

Posted by Bryan Shelton

Bryan applies his knowledge and expertise in strategic planning to help organizations align employee performance with company goals. Bryan helps clients create improvement across a variety of business metrics including company growth, profitability, customer service, vision alignment, leadership development, and culture change. He also helps clients implement process improvement initiatives, improve sales results and using performance-pay systems to help drive company results. His behavior-based approaches and applications have supported clients’ improvement initiatives, leadership development, and the design and implementation of performance pay systems.