Safety Leadership: Traits of great safety leaders

Safety leadership is influencing others to adopt health and safety as an important work goal. Byvisibly demonstrating leading by example in the workplace team leaders, managers and executives can:

  • help build workers’ safety knowledge and motivation
  • increase compliance with safety rules
  • encourage proactive safety behaviours.

Leaders should demonstrate their commitment to work health and safety by being actively involved in their business and encouraging and valuing workers’ participation.

Leadership impacts every facet of an organisation’s safety culture, including the attitudes and behaviours of team members, how teams interact with procedures and safety rules, as well as the physical work environment. With this in mind, it’s concerning to know that only 1 in 4 leaders demonstrates strong safety leadership behaviours.

So, if leaders set the tone of the culture and influence where teams focus their time and energy, what does effective safety leadership actually look like?

From siloed efforts to interdisciplinary collaboration

Having a business and operational people work side by side ensures that initiatives address broad organisational priorities, not just isolated business issues. Because it takes a huge amount of energy and enthusiasm to motivate others when we talk about health and safety.

A safety leader’s lackadaisical efforts to make health and safety policies and procedures a priority leads to a perception that safety is mind-numbingly dull and deserves no active interest – which can prove detrimental to an organisational goal.

A good safety leader can breathe in life to safety issues, helping their peers to view situations that are relevant and personal. Their ability to use their energy and enthusiasm to benefit their work can create and productive workforce.

Transactional vs Transformational Leadership

Transactional leadership provides the social foundations for compliance and minimum standard employee safety performance. It includes skills such as rewarding and recognising high safety performance and actively diagnosing and correcting problems before they become safety incidents.

Transformational leadership extends employee performance by providing a source of motivation including safety vision and inspiration, independent problem-solving such as challenging employees to resolve safety issues on their own, and role modelling of high safety performance.

When it comes to effective safety leadership, we require a combination of both transactional and transformational leadership skills. This ensures an appropriate balance between compliance-based safety leadership where leaders set standards, and monitor and provide feedback on employee performance and transformational leadership skills where leaders create and inspire a team towards a vision, collaborate to resolve safety issues and role model effective safety behaviours.

From leader-driven decision-making to data-driven decisions at the front-line

Safety leaders tend to augment their own judgement and intuitions to arrive at better conclusions about workplace health and safety issues. This traditional top-down approach can be supplemented with electronic tools and systems that give emphasis on statistics and help promote reporting of hazards and near misses and prevent high potential incidents to a great extent. When safety leaders trust in data analysis and insights, they feel empowered to make decisions with a more rational approach in mind – it becomes easier for them to spell out health and safety objectives more clearly.

Below re the list of a few practices that every safety leader needs to adopt to “walk the walk” when it comes to safety:

Vision: Leaders must have the ability to “see” what safety excellence looks like and the capability to articulate it throughout the organisation.

Active Support: Supporting team members through active monitoring of decisions and actions, and ensuring alignment with the corporate safety strategy, vision and values.

Collaboration: Effective leaders engage with employees, promote cooperation and collaboration, actively seek input from people on issues that affect them, and encourage others to implement their decisions to improve safety.

Role Model: Role modelling safety behaviour which are beyond compliance sets the benchmark of what is expected from the team.

Proactive Communication: Safety leaders need to be talking about safety every time they speak. Everything they communicate must be within the context of safety with complete openness and transparency

Seeking feedback: Leaders need honest and accurate feedback on the effect of their behaviours to help them ensure consistency between their passion for people and the message employees receive based on their actions.

Accountability: An effective leader gives workers a fair appraisal of their safety efforts and results, clearly communicates individual roles in the safety effort, and fosters the sense that every person is responsible for safety throughout the organisation.

Recognition: Recognising and rewarding team members based on their demonstration of effective safety behaviour.

Effective safety leadership not only results in increased discretionary effort but also improved employee productivity, efficiency, quality and active engagement. Helping leaders to understand their safety leadership ability enables them to capitalise on their strengths and develop their areas of opportunity.

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