The critical importance of fostering a robust safety culture has received a lot of attention lately. While this is a vital aspect of promoting safety in the workplace, it can't happen without an equally strong safety leader. For example, the National Energy Board, which is part of the North American Working Group on Safety Culture, has recognized leadership at the top of its four dimensions of positive safety culture.
Leadership is very different from management, and that difference is critical. For an effective safety culture to flourish, it cannot be perceived as a top-down strategy.
Leadership can't just support a strong safety culture — they should exemplify it. To ensure this, you need safety leaders with the right skill sets positioned throughout the company. Here are some of the key skills to look for in a strong safety leader.
Effective safety leaders take ownership over both safety culture and the safety record of their workplace, department or team. It is the classic "buck stops here" approach, and it's essential when things go wrong. Strong safety leaders own up to errors and take responsibility for the mistakes made by their teams. Then, they take action to fix the problems and ensure they do not happen again. A sense of personal accountability also makes it easier for these leaders to demand the same degree of responsibility from their teams regarding safety.
Confidence is what allows a leader to take accountability, but it should also extend to soliciting and accepting critical feedback from employees. Confident safety leaders are open to opinions from all levels and will quickly analyze, prioritize and implement solutions as required based on this feedback. This openness and confidence show workers that leadership cares and values their input. No one feels threatened and this, in turn, builds trust between leaders and workers.
Confidence isn't about having all the answers. It is about understanding when you don't. This is true for safety leaders in particular, who should be continually learning and staying on top of changes in business processes and safety innovations. This means taking the time to get out on the shop floor as well as accessing more formalized learning through reading, research or classroom knowledge.
Confidence is most often equated with believing in yourself. However, having the capacity to inspire confidence in others is the more significant challenge. This requires sincerity, but also conviction and consistency, and can be a tricky thing to navigate.
Consistency is a critical aspect of solid safety leadership. It allows workers and teams to act based on what they know a leader's reaction or direction will be. It empowers people, and it also makes them feel safe. It also ensures that everyone is treated the same. Safety policies should be reinforced by leaders consistently. Consequences must be the same no matter who is responsible. This, in turn, builds trust and strengthens the safety culture.
Consistency should also extend to organization efforts around safety. Strong leaders will pay attention to the finer details and accurately delegate and defend instructions to their teams.
A great safety leader should be comfortable around people, but more importantly, they should be approachable. This includes the little things such as a greeting that makes workers feel valued, but it goes far beyond that.
Approachability also implies empathy for others. It means walking a mile in a worker's shoes and understanding how changes in safety protocol and processes can affect workers and the work they do. This helps a leader to understand their impact and to make the best decisions for their team. It will also ensure the leader remains an advocate for an organization's workers. The result is that the leader's team will view safety as a team effort and see the leader as an integral part of that team.
Sincerity is also an integral part of approachability. Sincere leaders are trusted, and if a leader has their team's trust, the team will be more inclined to follow their lead on changing safety protocols and other initiatives.
A final aspect to approachability is a leader's ability to be flexible in terms of solutions and responses. Inflexible thinking and especially inflexible reactions tend to make everyone dig in their heels. Worse, it can stifle critical and creative thinking, and you need both to ensure a thriving safety culture.
Clarity is critical to effective communication. A strong leader can be pleasant and still be clear and direct. Constant communication is also an essential component of effective safety leadership. This keeps safety top of mind for all workers. It also helps to ensure the rollout of new safety measures is implemented smoothly. With open communication, a leader can ensure their workers are on board with the changes and understand their purpose.
Communication is as much about listening to others as it is about sharing your thoughts with others. A leader's team needs to know that the leader hears what the team is saying. They don't necessarily have to agree, but a strong leader should show them the courtesy of actually listening. Regular safety meetings — even quick stand-up or walking meetings squeezed into the workday — are an excellent way to ensure both reinforce safety messaging and solicit safety concerns.
Crucial Skills To Develop Over Time
For some safety leaders, these skills come naturally. For others, it requires some work and a bit of focus. However, the good news for all leaders is that these skills can all be learned and acquired over time. Strong safety leaders can keep their workplace safe and their team happy by making it a priority to cultivate these skills.