Safety leadership plays a vital role in the prevention of incidents. This is nothing new to anyone in the safety field. Top management commitment is a foundational element of every safety management system I’m aware of and it has been that way forever. Without real leadership any safety system will fail.
Here’s the problem though – if we all know that safety leadership is so important we sure aren’t doing much about it.
Think about it – what is your organization doing to promote safety leadership? Culturally speaking, I’m not aware of a single college business curriculum (e.g. MBA, accounting, financing, or management) that includes any course material related to safety management. So right off the bat most organizational leaders walk in the door no training, experience, or background in safety. We don’t assess them for safety-related behaviors and competencies. We provide them with no training once we bring them on board. Then we expect them to be leaders in something so complex as a safety culture and get confused as to why they can’t override years of education, training, and experience in NOT thinking about safety first. The truth is for something so important as safety leadership we set our leaders up for failure.
In the safety world there’s a relatively new concept called Prevention through Design, which involves designing safety into organizational systems, equipment, and processes rather than waiting for the problems to show up and then dealing with them. I think we need to apply some Prevention through Design concepts to safety leadership. I think we need Safety Leadership by Design.
Safety Leadership by Design is about designing safety leadership into our organizational leadership systems. Safety Leadership by Design involves at least four important steps:
- Selection – We can’t change the college curriculum overnight, but we can use proven scientific methods to assess leaders for behaviors and competencies that have been shown through research to be associated with effective safety leadership. You can also measure their SafetyDNA. The great news is this is a two-for-one deal, because most of the competencies associated with effective safety leadership are also associated with effective leadership in other areas as well.
- Development – Once on board, leaders should be run through a safety training and development process. This should involve the development of skills and competencies related to safety, identification of safety blindspots, and training on the safety management system and safety culture within the organization.
- Accountability – Leaders must be held accountable for safety within the organization. Now there are many misconceptions about accountability. First off, I don’t just mean that leaders should be punished for poor safety performance. Rather, the accountability system should be designed to reward leaders for effective safety performance primarily, and only punish as a last resort. Second, the accountability system should be based off of leading indicators, not just lagging indicators, as we discussed in a previous blog.
- Safety Decision Design – Even the most highly trained, safety conscious person will still make mistakes from time to time. Your safety management system should identify those decisions that leaders will make (including both formal and informal decisions) that are safety-critical. These decisions should be designed with a “safety speed bump” in place that ensures that the decisions are not made rashly and that error precursors (e.g. distractions) are minimized during the critical period.
Safety Leadership by Design puts the appropriate emphasis on this critical element of your safety management system. It takes the luck out of safety leadership and provides a solid foundation on which to build safety excellence.