Improving safety leadership

Improving Safety Leadership

By Josh Williams, Ph.D.

Increasing leadership ownership and engagement is critical for safety performance and safety culture improvement. EHS groups should support and partner with operational leaders but should NOT be the sole owners of safety. Here are a few guidelines for improving operational leadership support of safety.

Minimize Blame

Safety-related shortcuts or risky actions are involved in most incidents. However, these actions are almost always influenced by system factors like excessive production pressure, unavailable tools/equipment, insufficient manpower, ineffective training, confusing/incomplete procedures etc. Leaders need to maintain accountability but also improve system factors when gaps are identified. The first question when someone gets injured should be ‘where did the system fail?’ In some cases, there may not be any system factors involved. In these cases, coaching with the employee is appropriate (and don’t just default to retraining or creating new rules). Repeated or cardinal rule violations may require more punitive measures. However, these should be rare. Also, in most cases, system improvements impacting the incident need to be addressed.  

Get Employee Feedback With Safety Rules

Many employees express concerns about knee-jerk reactions and blanket safety policies following injuries that don’t always make sense or apply to their jobs. Most new policies are warranted and can be lifesaving. However, they can also be frivolous and non-applicable in certain situations. As an example, one plant manager outlawed baseball caps after finding out an employee who suffered a head injury said he thought the cap he was wearing was his hardhat. The next morning employees expressed their displeasure by showing up to work with football helmets, cowboy hats, and one even had an authentic Mexican sombrero on his head (but no baseball cap). Getting input from employees leads to more practical rules that employees are more likely to follow and supervisors feel more comfortable supporting. Also, the rationale for new policies or rule changes should be shared immediately with employees. They may not always like the changes, but they’ll appreciate the effort to let them know why the changes were made.

Don’t Let Production Pressure Trump Safety

Companies clearly need to be productive and profitable. If an organization fails to remain competitive and viable, there is no ‘company safety’ mission. However, employees often report that safety is compromised by production schedules, overtime, and insufficient staffing. Excessive production pressure may contribute to bad morale, at-risk safety shortcuts, and corresponding injuries/fatalities. Organization leaders need to balance safety and production demands effectively.

Spend More 1-1 Time Talking With Employees About Safety Issues

This develops relationships and builds trust. It increases leaders’ empathy regarding challenging safety issues employees deal with. This also allows leaders to provide recognition for safe work practices observed which, for most organizations, is greatly underutilized. Increasing supportive feedback for safe work practices increases their occurrence in the future and creates a more positive safety culture.

Respond Effectively to Employee Concerns and Suggestions

Employees should be encouraged to provide safety suggestions. Employees feel safer, and more valued, when these issues are addressed in a timely and effective manner. Leaders also need to advertise improvements. There should be an ongoing communications campaign to regularly showcase process improvements based on employee feedback. Leaders should also let people know when issues can’t be immediately fixed and communicate what will be done in the short-term to mitigate any hazards until full-time corrections can be accomplished.


Effective safety leadership is a habit that should be practiced and strengthened on an ongoing basis. These simple steps will help you reinforce your good intentions for safety.

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