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Reasons for Trying a Personal Approach to Safety Leadership

About a year ago we started working with a manufacturing company – one of their sites had been struggling with high incident rates for the previous couple of years. Their TRIR was significantly higher than the industry norm and they were having a significant issue with slips, trips and falls. When we began working with their leadership team, we realized that they had a great set of dedicated, seasoned supervisors, who had a strong work ethic and wanted to do the right thing. However, there was one problem – they didn’t necessarily have the strongest people skills. While this was apparent immediately upon meeting them, it was later confirmed when they completed a safety leadership assessment which measured their leadership style.

Over 50% of them fell into what we call an “Overseer” style of leadership. Based on concepts from classic research in leadership, and the basic dimensions of consideration and initiating structure , this is a leadership style where the supervisor provides a lot of autonomy to their people and generally lets people do their job however they want. Sounds great, right?

Well, it has its perks, but if you’re trying to create a safe workplace, you’ll run into trouble if most of your leaders have this style. While these leaders are very effective when they manage seasoned, self-directed teams, they can struggle when they supervise less experienced individuals that need more guidance. Overseers have a leadership style that results in:

  • Little structure and support

  • Unclear expectations

  • Somewhat detached from people

  • Often not very friendly or approachable

As a result, they tend to be “putting out fires” rather than checking in on things, holding people accountable, and actively building relationships with their people.

What does this mean for safety?

Well, it can create a lot of exposure to risk on one’s team because these leaders may trust people to a fault rather than check to make sure they are following safety procedures, and they may not make it clear what the expectations are for safe behavior. In addition, since they tend to have a detached personal style, Overseers:

  • Are naturally less visible on the floor

  • Do less frequent walk-throughs

  • Spend little time talking with people one-on-one about safety concerns

  • Have difficulty communicating and making a personal connection with people

This is exactly what we found when working with this leadership group – they were not really “people” people and they felt like they should not have to do a lot of “hand holding” out on the floor. Given the nature of their workforce, however, people skills and hand holding were exactly what they needed to do in order to improve safety!

What transpired over the course of the next year was incredible. We began by training them on the key concepts of safety leadership, and how their behavior impacted safety on the floor. We also sat down with each leader 1-on-1 and debriefed them on their assessment results, and how their results were influencing their leadership behavior. And once each leader committed to one, specific leadership goal to improve their safety leadership gaps, that’s when the magic began.

Leaders created action plans that ranged from:

  • More personal toolbox talks

  • Daily walk-arounds

  • Overhauling the confined spaces program

One of my favorites was a guy who committed to walking around the floor every day to thank his employees for working safely – wearing safety glasses, gloves, etc., anything. A supervisor who had never said “thank you” to anyone for anything related to safety was now suddenly walking around all the time, looking for ways to positively reinforce safety. What value can you place on that?

Another leader admitted that he was highly intimidating to his employees, so they never said a word to him and whenever he walked by, he would suddenly see them all put their PPE on. He committed to “getting to know people more.” How did he do that? He made an action plan where he had lunch with employees at least 3 times a week and he made it a point to have at least one informal, friendly conversation with an employee a day. All of a sudden he knew his employees’ kids names, what their hobbies were, and where they were from. More importantly, people started wearing their PPE whether he was there or not, and actually began raising concerns to him about hazards. And for the first time in his 8 years there, a temporary employee actually gave HIM feedback on unsafe behavior. No one had ever done that before.

So, what were the results?

Numerous other stories came out of this intervention, which has now gone on for about a year, with ongoing skills-based training, follow-up coaching, and action planning to make the process sustainable. A lot of supervisors have changed something in their routine and in their way of thinking in order to reduce exposure to risk. So what has all of this led to after 12 months?

  • 20% decrease in recordable injuries

  • 20% decrease in lost days

  • 17% decrease in overall safety incidents, including first aid injuries

Can we say that this was all entirely due to the safety leadership program they went through? Incidents are complex and due to multiple factors, so I am sure other things may have contributed to these results. It’s always hard to estimate the exact effect that this program had, but we know that training, procedures, and the personnel were virtually unchanged in that 12 month period, so there was not much change in other areas. What we can say is that it did play an important role and that plant leadership feels it was a big driver for the behavioral change we saw in many of the leaders, as well as the improved safety metrics.

I think the real key is that it helped the leaders make safety personal and allowed them to see the link between their actions and the safety of their team members. If more companies could help their leaders see that connection, and somehow give them the basic safety leadership skills they need, I think we would see a noticeable decrease in injury rates. As a result, organizations would start taking that “next step” towards Zero that they are so desperately striving for.