Safety leadership extends far beyond a punch line or pithy quote

I frequently use inspirational quips and quotes in articles and presentations. One popular saying, in particular, always makes me roll my eyes and sigh with disbelief:

“Safety is everyone’s responsibility.” – Author unknown

Is that so? Then why does it seem some organizations finish the sentence with “…when it’s convenient.” It might not be stated, but it sure is practiced.

These same organizations also tend to use the word “safety” as either as a punch line or space filler on corporate websites and brochures. At the end of the day, these organizations are 100 percent on board with safety – as long as it meshes well with profitability and output. If it doesn’t, guess what word or phrase drops off the radar?

Do I believe that these employers care nothing about safety? Let’s not go that far. Do I believe some employers are misguided? Absolutely!

One quote, in particular, rings true:

“Management rarely starts a safety culture. They usually end it.”

Think about it. Many safety professionals spend countless hours trying to build an effective safety culture, only to have their efforts undermined by those in leadership roles. This undermining is rarely malicious. More often it is done out of sheer ignorance because the bigger picture or systematic effects are not apparent to the “mahoganites” who occupy that big table in the board room.

Here’s another quote that applies:

“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” (Sir Isaac Newton)

Leadership’s job is to take action. The important part is determining if the reaction will produce positive or negative results for the organization. This thought process occurs during product design, marketing campaigns and pricing discussions. It doesn’t seem to happen as often when safety is a topic of discussion.

Can we honestly place all the blame on leadership? The answer is “yes” if there is a total disregard for safety when all the facts are understood. If you have paid attention to criminal proceedings aimed at leadership and management following catastrophic mishaps, you know that those who have disregarded employee safety pay dearly.

Failures based on ignorance may be rooted in many different silos in the organization. In fact, maybe one should look no further than the safety professionals themselves. How is that possible? Allow me to explain.

On countless occasions, I have seen safety professionals develop training matrices for the rank and file that exclude supervisory staff and management. Even though people in high-level positions might not be directly exposed to a particular hazard, shouldn’t they at least be AWARE that these exposure risks exist? But awareness is only part of the answer.

Would product pricing decisions be made without being aware of profitability or closed/won opportunities? Would new product development decisions be made without market research? The VP of Marketing and CFO usually bring something to the table that most safety professionals do not: cold, hard data.

Leaders cannot be expected to make well-informed decisions if they are not aware of health and safety exposures and possible ramifications. And if they are “aware,” they need access to metrics to develop the business case. Sure, we can use threats of “compliance” and “regulation,” but what we are ultimately doing to s enabling leadership to think of safety as a cost center. Attempts to build a safety culture are NEVER successful in this type of organization.

Are safety professionals missing the mark on total organizational awareness for health and safety? While we have the rank and file solidly nailed down, we have a long way to go with leadership.

How do you define “total organizational awareness?” Where do you think we are falling short with regard to proving our case to leadership? Let’s put ourselves through a continuous improvement project.

“Knowledge is wealth.” What say you?

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