Occupational Safety

Safety leadership

How quality leadership promotes OHS success

6 min02/06/2023

The term “safety leadership” describes a style of leadership that aims to actively implement the integral values of occupational health and safety. It is underpinned by two fundamental questions:

  • Who takes responsibility for occupational health and safety? 
  • How can we work strategically to improve this?

Who feels responsible for occupational health and safety is determined by the prevailing safety culture. A common benchmark for evaluating safety culture is the Bradley Curve. Depending on which level of safety culture your company has reached, it is possible that nobody feels responsible, that only safety officers feel responsible, managers or individual employees feel responsible for themselves, or that all employees feel responsible for each other. However, when a safety culture has reached the most advanced level, all employees become safety leaders.

Even though safety leadership does not solely apply to managers, it is also evident that they play a decisive role in developing their company’s safety culture and pushing it to the next level. In addition to knowledge of regulations and liability issues, safety leaders should also train the following soft skills and incorporate them into their strategic work:

1. Communication

Regular employee conversations and meetings are a crucial step in laying the foundations for safe behavior in the workplace. Safety leaders should strive to engage with their colleagues directly at regular intervals, e.g., with a short safety talk. Alternatively, they could hold regular safety meetings with small groups of colleagues, using real accident reports to illustrate potential workplace hazards.

2. Authenticity and being a role model

Talking about putting safety first is not enough. Instead, safety leaders need to set an example and practice what they preach. For example, if you tell employees that they must wear safety boots in certain areas of the premises, you should not walk around those same areas in normal shoes. And, if managers make mistakes, they must be accountable and take responsibility for them.

3. Integrating employees

In order to increase everyone’s feeling of responsibility in the company, it is recommended to delegate individual tasks to employees. If they are actively involved in OHS processes — during on-site inspections, training measures or contributing to safety-related decisions — this will improve cohesion and team spirit while also raising awareness throughout the workforce.

4. Appreciation and feedback

An open failure and feedback culture should not just be part of a company’s theoretical philosophy — it should be actively embraced and practiced. Nobody should be afraid of reporting an unsafe situation or even an accident in the workplace. Reluctance to report such issues can keep potential shortcomings hidden — and significantly risk actual accident rates being much higher and remaining undetected while appearing positive on paper. This makes it even more important for managers to actively encourage reporting. Near misses and unsafe situations also require feedback and appropriate action. In addition, it is vital to praise safe behavior. This further raises employees’ awareness that the company values and prioritizes safe working.

5. Performance and leadership style

If you want to be taken seriously as a leader, you should cultivate a clear and comprehensible leadership style. In addition to the communication skills already mentioned, this requires having an authentic approach that meets the expectations of employees.

If, for example, a shift system is introduced that affects employees' health or increases accidents at work and unsafe situations, leadership is needed as well as the willingness to admit one's own misjudgments and to ensure that the problem is solved in a way that satisfies everyone.

6. A collaborative safety culture

For a positive safety mindset to emerge, employees must understand the importance of occupational health and safety and view it in a positive light. It is therefore the responsibility of managers to create a common safety culture in which all stakeholders work together.

The aim should be to ensure that not only leaders pay attention to safe behavior and provide feedback. Employees should also support each other and address unsafe behaviors and potential hazards. At the same time, it is helpful to give each other positive feedback on safety-conscious behavior. Leaders must be trained to motivate their employees to behave in such a way.

7. Occupational safety onboarding as a baseline

Unfortunately, it is still very uncommon for managers to have the skills and training they need to implement such actions. This is because they do not receive professional onboarding regarding occupational health and safety, unlike onboarding related to products and their production. It is essential that managers and other potential safety leaders are given extensive, detailed OHS training over the course of several months and implement relevant measures in conjunction with a sparring partner. This ensures that they benefit from direct feedback and gain inner motivation for safety leadership through quick successes.

Stefan Ganzke is an expert in safety culture and communication on the topic of occupational safety. As Managing Partner of WandelWerker Consulting GmbH, he primarily helps safety engineers and occupational safety professionals to achieve lasting reductions in workplace accidents.

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