Long before COVID-19 upended life as we know it, there were organizations demonstrating exceptional safety leadership. We are proud to have worked with countless safety professionals and leaders, from small companies and major global organizations alike, who ‘Get It’ when it comes to safety. We even wrote a book about what distinguishes a leader who is very successful in safety from one who struggles, called the 7 Insights into Safety Leadership.
Then came COVID -19 which threatened us all and changed everything.
Every leader and every worker, in every company we knew, turned their full attention to maintaining business continuity, viability, and success, while implementing rigorous policies designed to protect workers, their families, and the community at large. CEOs and their executive leadership teams were driving instead of delegating risk management in their organizations. This amplified accountability for safety across the board – even in businesses that had seemingly very little risk to manage prior to COVID-19. Safety professionals were invited to the business strategy table and developed partnerships with business leaders like never before. We remain in awe of the high-velocity and highly effective organizational changes that have been accomplished.
It occurs to us that we are seeing the 7 Insights play out on a global scale. Every leader has been given insight that, until now, had been reserved for a small percentage of leaders around the world. This article discusses the response to COVID-19 through the lens of the 7 Insights. We hope that this helps leaders find ways to recognize and sustain the gains.
Insight 1 – Safety Performance Leads Business Performance
Getting safety and health right has always been an ideal catalyst for improving business performance. COVID-19 has amplified the fact that safety and business performance are inexorably linked, thus illuminating the principle tenant of Insight 1.
Through our interviews with close to 100 EHS professionals from leading organizations, we learned that safety performance has improved during the COVID-19 pandemic for the vast majority. Even organizations whose risk profiles have not changed are now seeing improvement. But the silver linings of COVID-19 don’t stop there. The efforts of leaders who are going to great lengths to care for their employees’ health and safety needs are being reciprocated: Employees are showing their care and concern, and are investing their discretionary energy for the health and viability of the business. Given new opportunities to contribute to problem-solving, employees are coming up with fresh ideas for efficient, effective, and safe ways of working. This is Insight 1 in action.
Insight 2 – Safety Leadership Begins with Attention to Serious Incidents and Fatalities
SIF prevention is now at the top of everyone’s mind.
COVID-19 is a SIF exposure. So now SIF potential touches everyone (or someone they care about) every minute of every day, both inside of and outside of the workplace. SIF prevention requires a different approach, and it’s more true now than ever before. This is Insight 2.
COVID-19 has different underlying causes than any other risk we’ve managed, including the flu. Had we used the same protocols to protect people from COVID-19 as we did the flu, many more lives would have been lost. Instead, organizations used rapid learning methods to understand the high-risk situations, risk amplifiers, and critical safety controls.
Organizations are learning every day about how to manage this crucially important risk. Getting the protocols right is the first step, but it is only as effective as assuring that they are followed. The climate is ripe for doing this, but there are still unanswered questions that present decision dilemmas, at each employee level. The opportunity to learn is rich.
Insight 3 – Leadership Sets Safety Improvement in Motion
There are many ways to achieve positive change, however the third Insight is that when safety improvement is led from the top of an organization, from the heart, with some urgency and sincere energy, change is not only possible, but it is rapid and efficient. Leadership sets the tone and pace. It innervates all other things that influence and sustain safety outcomes. This is Insight 3.
COVID-19 presents every leader with the opportunity to fully and objectively assess their leadership in the new circumstances. Leaders at all levels must find new ways to connect when remote work and physical distancing measures limit interaction. It is critical to be present in the workplace – safety cannot be led solely from home.
During our many COVID-19 safety discussions, we have met some exceptional leaders who recognize that they have a unique opportunity to set new cultural standards. They have continued to articulate a compelling health and safety vision and demonstrate an unwavering personal value for safety. These leaders inherently recognize that they are always creating culture through their words and actions and have enhanced their credibility as their company’s chief cultural steward.
Insight 4 – Organizational and Safety Culture are Mechanisms that Sustain and Extend Improvements
Insight 4 highlights the critical role that culture plays in organizational improvement efforts. When two key attributes of culture are strong—safety climate and organizational functioning—improvements in safety are sustained over the long-term and even extended beyond safety to other areas of the business. Any safety improvement effort, therefore, should be evaluated by its impact on culture, not just the outcomes.
Our response to COVID-19 presents an incredible opportunity to assess leaders’ impact on organizational culture, particularly those attributes that support sustainability and business improvement. When one organization decided to do this, it discovered that the feedback received from employees was immensely more valuable than anticipated. It decided to make an ongoing practice of soliciting and responding to employee feedback on leadership, culture, and safety improvements.
Insight 5 – Leading Safety Begins with Understanding Safety
Injuries are prevented by a safe and healthy workplace. The dynamics of creating a safe workplace have changed and leaders need to quickly adapt. Insight 5 reinforces that a safe workplace is much more than awareness, and we are seeing exactly that in response to Covid-19.
A global manufacturing company set up cross-functional and cross-level rapid response teams to be engaged in decision making for COVID-19 protocol design, implementation, return to work, and business continuity. These teams are working with site leaders to redesign facilities, create new workflows, procure supplies and equipment, and engage workers in identifying, testing, and improving solutions. Everybody is working together to make work as safe, efficient, and effective as possible.
Insight 6 – The Role of Behavior in Incident Causation is Important, But it is Only One Piece
Historically, safety behavior efforts have been targeted at the front line. Insight 6 establishes that the role of individual behavior in incident causation is important; but it is only one piece, and usually a small one.
The COVID-19 protocols ask for very specific behaviors (uncomfortable for some) from every member of the workforce: masks, physical distancing, and frequent handwashing, to name a few. It is refreshing to see leaders focusing on creating the environment where this can happen. For example, site leaders have redesigned workspaces so that physical distancing is possible. They have asked many workers to work from home and did so with sensitivity to the messages they are sending to people in the process. These are all examples of the ways in which leadership decisions drive culture and systems, which in turn drive organizational behavior and performance.
Insight 7 – Decision Making Plays a Critical Role in Safety Performance and Can Be Undermined by Cognitive Bias
The risks of COVID-19 require that everyone understand that individual decisions are part of a network of decisions that cross organizational boundaries and levels.
Many organizations we are working with during COVID-19 recognize this and are seizing the opportunity to strengthen their decision-making capability. They understand that the decisions they are making today will affect the organization and its culture for a very long time. They are taking care to identify the critical few decisions that must go right in order to succeed, and then practice decision hygiene to avoid cognitive bias and ensure that risk doesn’t accumulate down the road.
Call to Action
The 7 Insights into Safety Leadership is more relevant than ever before in today’s world. Every organization is now focused on getting safety and health right to ensure the safety of each employee and to ensure business continuity. Utilizing our 7 Insights framework, work with your leadership team to assess your current state and establish action plans around these three areas:
- Identify the insights your leaders have gained and put sustaining mechanisms in place, so these gains endure well into the future.
- Identify what was done to increase employee engagement during COVID-19 and agree on ways to sustain that engagement.
- Identify additional ways that you can sustain the positive EHS momentum created during the pandemic.
 Krause, T.R. & Bell, K.J. (2015). 7 Insights into Safety Leadership. Ojai, CA: The Safety Leadership Institute