Improving the quality of safety leadership is the single most important change an organization can make to increase the effectiveness of their safety programs. While it’s not surprising that strong safety leadership results in effective safety efforts, our experience and research show us that in many organizations where safety is a critical concern, even highly effective leaders have a knowledge gap when it comes to safety leadership. This gap can directly impact the overall quality of the safety effort and, ultimately, the safety of people within the organization. So, how do we bridge the knowledge gap and improve the effectiveness of safety programs? As researchers and consultants specializing in safety leadership, organizational culture, and performance improvement, we have identified seven key insights to guide the development of a highly effective safety improvement strategy.
These insights, summarized below, are discussed in detail in our book 7 Insights into Safety Leadership.
1. SAFETY PERFORMANCE LEADS BUSINESS PERFORMANCE
The first insight is about the relationship between safety and organizational performance. When a senior leader understands how safety and organizational performance are connected and why they are connected, it will affect the way they think about their strategy and vision for the organization.
2. SAFETY LEADERSHIP STARTS WITH ATTENTION TO SERIOUS INJURIES AND FATALITIES
The second insight into safety excellence is that senior leaders should focus attention first on addressing serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs). The long-held practice of concentrating on minor incidents and hoping for a trickle up effect has been proven inadequate, and leadership needs to familiarize itself with the most serious risks.
3. SAFETY LEADERSHIP SETS SAFETY IMPROVEMENT IN MOTION
The third insight has to do with how safety leadership sets the stage for safety improvement, and why safety leadership is the starting point for successful organizational change. It answers the question, “What does it mean to ‘Get It’ when it comes to leading safety, and where does ‘It’ come from?”
4. CULTURE SUSTAINS AND EXTENDS PERFORMANCE IMPROVEMENT
Leadership affects culture, and culture amplifies everything. The fourth insight is about the role culture plays in safety and organizational performance generally. It explains the very interesting relationships between leadership and culture, and implications for the long-term future of the organization.
5. LEADING SAFETY STARTS WITH UNDERSTANDING SAFETY
The fifth insight has to do with injury causation and prevention. It offers core concepts about injury causation that inform and guide strategies for decision making and safety improvement.
6. BEHAVIOR CAN OBSCURE EXPOSURE
The sixth insight is about the role of behavior in organizational safety. It tracks the history of Behavior-Based Safety (BBS) efforts and explains why BBS is controversial and poorly understood. It shows how the term “BBS” has been abused as well as how it was originally defined and successfully implemented.
7. SAFE DECISION MAKING AND COGNITIVE BIAS
The seventh insight has to do with safe decision-making and some of the ways cognitive bias undermines our judgment. It discusses several biases that affect decisions we make in leading and managing safety—as well as individual risk-taking decisions—and how those biases can misdirect efforts to improve.
These seven insights teach organizational leaders how to become excellent in safety on purpose. In a world where work is inherently risky and exposure to risk is ever-changing, organizations must be clear on their value for safety and the data-driven approaches that will chart their progress. Our 7 insights are drawn from decades of research and the latest thinking. They will help leaders understand why good intentions are only the start for a safer workplace, how to sidestep common misinterpretations that can derail safety efforts, and why leaders at every level need to engage with safety—with a focus on preventing the most serious events first. Every person and every organization has the opportunity to be excellent at safety. It is good for your people, it is good for your culture, and excellence in safety will show up as excellence in other areas of performance. You can be more efficient and effective in your organization. You can be insightful. Safety is not such an enigma when you understand these concepts.