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Safety leadership roles in safety culture

A great variety of safety leadership ‘recipes’ for changing organisational safety culture, indicate that many researchers and practitioners have each found some aspects of an elusive process.

Connections between leadership and culture seems to remain an ever evading mystery, that most leaders and most companies that I have seen up close are struggling with.

Leadership is not a textbook, stereotype process or style following some magic recipe like ‘ABC’, or a north American model of ‘how to become an effective leader in seven steps’. I will discuss ‘pop leadership’ and ‘pop psychology’ later.

A leading researcher of safety culture, and unfortunately an Australian, Michael Tooma, wrote and presented a paper at the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) Chicago conference in June 2011, on the recent spate of disasters around the world, with very interesting conclusions.

Tooma found these features of recent safety disasters:
• Most investigation reports mention lack of leadership and organisational culture as a major contributing factor.
• Investigated organisations had dynamic safety leadership development processes in place for a considerably long time.
• Employers must earn the right to implement a leadership program. Before systems and safety design is in place, leadership programs are mere ‘spin’.
• Employers need an approach based on proper foundations, like safety engineering. Sociology has been emphasised at the expense of safety design and good engineering practices, to the detriment of safety conditions and safety performance.
• Broaden the approach to safety in design considerations. Failure to plan is planning to fail, doing without checking is a recipe for incidents.

I believe this last comment about safety design is very valid in terms of African workplace mentality. Managers, supervisors, team leaders and workers have forgotten how to logically and properly manage their own safety in the workplace.

Take a hard, honest look at your work sites and procedures before any shift, and you would probably notice a serious lack of planning, preparation or anticipation of consequences, even before people start work.

Raise expectations and values

Do you know supervisors who plan a working week, day, or shift? I think we have lowered the bar in terms of expectations, and thus we expect less from middle management.

Lowered expectation is a frightening trend in current society, and it is creeping into our workplaces and in into our work practices. People tolerance more deviations, non conformances, hazards, risks and values.

Raise verification functions

Quality management is dropping along with other sheq elements and values. Most managers and supervisors follow the basic management model of ‘plan, do, check, act’, but they neglect to check or verify well, for an array of reasons.

Managers often do not have time, skill, or appetite to check. Everyone wants to be popular, and ‘policing’ functions, like the voice of conscience, are not popular.

Again managers accept and accommodate non-compliance and ‘not in time’ completion of required action, using lowered tolerance, rationalising, excuses, in a process that could be termed proactive blame shifting.

Outcomes of lowered quality performance are as predictable as outcomes of increased quality performance.

Rise above slogans, to values

Due to lack of applying basic management principles to manage safety, many organisations, advised by ‘recipes’ from safety practitioners, compensate for poor culture by designing and implementing a string of safety systems, ‘leadership’ and behaviour interventions, or programs and processes like Visible Felt Leadership, safety campaigns and slogans to hopefully influence workers attitudes and actions.

Recipes and slogans have become the norm. Organizations and leaders compete to ‘implement’ and ‘drive’ the latest popular ‘philosophies’, concepts, programs or processes on the consulting market.

These programs have a limited shelf life and have to be ‘driven’ continuously to achieve desired results, and usually they do, but we have to investigate the reasons for their limited success.

Raise discipline to ‘value’ level

I have been involved in two recent worldwide internet discussions on this topic, started by a respected South African corporate safety leader and a group of internationally registered safety professionals.

The main issue is the relative value of ‘hard core discipline’ of workers for non-compliance and deviations, versus so-called ‘behaviour based’ approaches. Some participants, notably from the Middle East, even consider these to be mutually exclusive options.

I can not agree with punishing workers as being able to solve problems that lie much deeper in the fibers of an organisation. Discipline starts at the top and have to be entrenched at every level in the organisation, becoming part of the inherent culture and values of the company.

At the risk of generalizing, I believe that in the current workplace environment in Africa, most people, though not all, do what they believe they can get away with, implying that risk exposure consequences and severity do not scare them sufficiently. Fear is not a good occupational safety motivator.

However, if you apply discipline at one level only, usually at worker level, it generates a negative energy and perception unfairness, that further drives the perception of ‘us against them’, and widens the trust gap between management and workers.

This management versus workers perception gap is now seen by the World Bank as one of the major obstacles for investors in the South African economy.

Discipline programmes require two critical pre-requisites:
• Disciplined organisations have a clear understanding of safety requirements and responsibilities at all levels, and everyone is held accountable to the same degree for compliance.
• Executives, managers, supervisors and workers equally and consistently apply the concept of ‘plan, do, check, act’ in production and safety tasks.

Raise leadership to inspiration

My views on leadership are based on experience in the former Iscor and other organisations where I had the privilege to work in the last decade, as well as studies in a global context in the USA, and research in several organisations around the world.

Leadership is not the exclusive ownership of management, but is a characteristic of certain people at any level in the organisation. Leadership genuinely cares for and about people, their safety and their wellbeing. Leaders are honourable, they say and do as they preach.

Caring for others comes naturally and genuinely. This demonstrated trait makes them trustworthy people that others would follow and obey, especially regarding safety performance.

There are more books and papers on business and workplace leadership than I could vividly imagine. Yet there is no single way, or silver bullet for how to be a great safety leader. Here are some of the characteristics of great safety leaders, at all levels, that I have met, and I know that I do not have all the answers. Safety leaders are at least;

• passionate about safety, on and off the job
• living safety values, walking their talk, setting examples
• positive and willing to try our new concepts, even when their seniors resist
• adamant about doing the right thing and not allowing deviations
• insistent on fixing wrongs immediately
• meticulous and careful in boring tasks like administration, order, training, inspiration.

These leaders have great success in safety and in all aspects of their job and life. It is always a pleasure to associate with such people and you could immediately see a difference in conditions, attitudes and ultimately in culture at their workplaces, whether it is a company, department, mine, section, workshop or office. You can feel it in the ‘vibe’.

Whether safety leaders are born and raised, or ordinary people who are trained, practice, or inspired by others, I could not tell from literature or my experience. I could merely list some of the requirements for attempting to become a safety leader;

• Question our own passion for, belief in, and acting out safety values. We have no chance to tackle the daunting task of changing others into safety leaders, unless we are safety leaders ourselves.
• Identify safety leaders in our organisations, open conversations with them, give them recognition and support, equip them to effectively spread safety inspiration.
• Talk to our senior managers, or get someone we both respect to talk to them. Unless workers have absolute commitment and passion from the top person in management and on the board, were are fighting losing battles on the shop floor.
• Plan a safety leadership drive as a structured, dedicated process, based on safety values, aimed only to prevent loss of life, injury, suffering and loss to any person within and without the organisations. Safety is a human, personal issue, not a workhorse to carry other agendas.
• Learn continuously from others and apply the skills and inspiration of others to achieve safety goals. I have too often seen the egos of safety practitioners, including myself, becoming an obstacle to reaching goals or higher levels of building a disciplined, powerful, sustaining safety culture for living safety values.

– Francois Smith is managing member of Saacosh.

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