July 31, 2023

Building a Deeper Relationship between Operations and Safety

The purpose of this article is to challenge the traditional relationship between senior operations leaders and leaders in the safety function, using the risk matrix as an exemplar and catalyst for change. We contend the traditional relationship has the operations leader delegating pivotal safety decisions to their safety counterparts. The lack of involvement contributes to gaps in understanding and alignment and undermines the partnership that is needed in order to have a fully-functioning, sustainable risk management effort. Without their operations leader’s engagement, the safety executive, manager, or specialist are unlikely to be successful in challenging the status quo. The organization, in turn, is less likely to respond to a deteriorating risk profile until something bad happens.

Senior operations leaders, handing over so much decision-making authority to their technical experts in Programs, Finance, HR, Supply Chain, etc. — without more extensive input and challenge — is rarely seen in any other area . If we want to mitigate risk across the whole risk portfolio, and strengthen culture at the same time, then senior operations leaders cannot fully delegate decisions to their safety executive. Likewise, safety executives cannot be successful using whatever authority they may have to bypass the operational leaders’ accountability to define and manage the level of acceptable risk across the business. The same is true at every other level of the organization.

Our premise is there needs to be deeper relationships between these crucial functions. Bonds need to be built between the safety function and operations at every level of the organization. Through these relationships, relevant expertise and endorsed risk tolerance jointly influence safety-critical decisions throughout the organization.

The risk matrix sits quietly at the center of all this. The quality of input into its design directly affects the credibility of its output. Used as a decision-making tool in risk management, it is capable of influencing thousands of decisions a year. However, most leaders would not be able to describe how it supports their vision on how safety risks should be assessed and controlled.


In a recent collaboration with a group of safety executives, we discussed their organizations’ uses of the risk matrix. Every organization represented in the group used a similar type of risk matrix. Most were assessing severity and likelihood to delineate levels of risk.  Most had defined their own criteria for severity and likelihood. Every organization was using their risk matrix to assess specific hazards and make decisions on level and types of acceptable mitigation.

In this discussion, we observed:

  • The risk matrix is not just for assessing risk: it is also a tool that influences how people think about risk and has the power to align the organization around acceptable levels of risk and expected levels of mitigation. The risk matrix is underutilized in this regard.
  • Although it has a great influence on risk management, the risk matrix has rarely undergone a critical conversation leading to an endorsement by senior leaders.
  • The risk matrix has become unchallengeable in many organizations. This weakens it – both as a risk evaluation tool and as an alignment tool.
  • Although organizations have embraced the new paradigm surrounding significant injury and fatality prevention, rarely has the risk matrix been adapted to reflect the change in which risks should be receiving the greatest level of organizational focus. Once again, this weakens it.

This reflection led us to question why these conditions exist and what safety executives can do differently. In parallel, as a senior operations leader, why should you be concerned when these conditions exist and what can you do differently?

As a safety executive, you bring a lot of skills and experience to the table. Whether you are a certified safety professional or not, you have probably invested energy developing deep understanding of how safety systems and processes keep people safe. You have probably learned the hard lessons of the impacts on many people when these systems and processes do not work as intended. You have probably learned that you can only do so much, and these systems and processes rely on many people all doing the right things. You have probably been frustrated when you see issues not getting solved or mixed messages, which can undermine your purpose in supporting safe working conditions and safe working behaviors.  

In our work with safety executives and managers, we witness various levels of credibility and participation in operational decisions. In increasing maturity, we see:  
> Experts who are focused primarily on the safeguards within their direct authority. Their contribution is often limited to technical training and programming.
>Experts who understand that safety improvement requires senior leader engagement, but sometimes struggle to change the dynamic. This is exacerbated when they have been over-functioning for a long time.
>Experts who are comfortable playing the part of an expert in a complex system. They are skillful in educating leaders on known risks and reliable methods for managing them, and equally skillful in advising when conditions change. They partner with operations leaders to discover and evaluate options, and to monitor how the partnership is creating appropriate safety mindsets and delivering performance.
As a senior leader in your organization your role has many facets. You probably had expertise in some part of the business activity and have developed broader accountabilities over time reflecting people’s confidence in your abilities. As these accountabilities have broadened you have become comfortable in delegating responsibilities, managing people, and making important decisions on various aspects of risk management. You probably will have aspects of your work that excite you and other aspects you feel are necessary to run a business, but you are comfortable delegating to others.  
In our work with senior leaders, we encounter various levels of understanding and influence of safety risk management. In order of increasing maturity, we see:  
> Senior leaders who are mainly interested in the number and rate of injury. Their involvement is often limited to a sign off on a Safety Policy, Mission, or Vision Statement.
> Senior leaders who understand they have a role to play in safety improvement. They want to do their part but sometimes struggle with what role they can play in a complex system. Often, they become the cheerleader demonstrating care but not getting into a more influential role.
> Senior leaders who understand the dynamics of risk management and the underlying role of culture. They set clear expectations for their business and ensure that the associated systems and processes are capable of delivering on them. They partner with their experts to adapt in an ever-changing business environment. They monitor their impact on behavior and culture.


This article is about how safety professionals can better engage line leaders to fulfill their role in managing risk, enhancing culture, and elevating performance. We use the term “managing” on purpose because “leading” safety requires credibility, and credibility comes from effective risk management. Without demonstrated capability and desire to manage risk, no leader will be able to develop the trust that is the foundation for leadership, culture, and performance improvement.[1]

We propose starting with the risk matrix as a catalyst for changing the relationship, recognizing that there are other areas that warrant mutual engagement and partnership. The risk matrix is a tool that calibrates the organization on risk acceptance and informs thousands of critical decisions about the types of controls used to mitigate risk in hazardous situations. By taking the time to understand, review, and sign off on this tool, leaders can dramatically improve the chances that these decisions reflect their values and expectations.

One way to start is to use real organizational dilemmas to study the risk matrix, understand how it is influencing decisions, how it is used to embed risk tolerance in policies and standards, and how it is used to decide where organizational resources (e.g., budget, time, and attention) are most effectively applied.

Aside from the risk matrix there are probably a dozen other risk management systems, processes, and tools that send powerful signals about what’s important and embed them deep into an organization affecting safety and culture for decades. These systems help translate your level of risk acceptance into risk controls and workforce behaviors. 

Another big one is the safety measurement system. Safety performance has and will always be a difficult area to judge, mainly because most of the time nothing bad happens. By focusing on the absence of injury, we fail to learn how much risk is present and how capable we are to identify and control it. A better evaluation system will tell us if we are getting better at recognizing situations with serious injury or fatality potential. Are we getting better at responding to risk amplifiers? Are we getting better at controlling risk in these situations?


Our analogy is a car trip with the leader at the steering wheel and the safety professional navigating. Both are essential in getting to the destination. The journey will be most effective and enjoyable by working together applying their relative skills. Lack of agreement on destination, not sharing information, or not developing their own skills, leads to a rockier road and greater frustration when you end up somewhere different than intended.

[1] Krause, T.R. & Bell, K.J. (2015) .7 Insights into Safety Leadership. Ojai, CA: The Safety Leadership Institute. (See insights 3 and 5)

Building a Deeper Relationship between Operations and Safety

July 31, 2023

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