Safety Leadership: It’s More Than Just a Title

Safety leadership is critical in promoting a culture of safety and reducing accidents and injuries. A crucial first step is to differentiate the roles of safety manager and safety leader.  

Safety leadership involves the actions, behaviors, and decisions of leaders that prioritize and promote safety in the workplace. Merely possessing technical competence is insufficient to achieve the required safety outcomes. While a safety manager may also act as a safety leader, any employee who exhibits safety leadership can help promote safety. Safety leaders use compassionate collaboration to encourage their teams to actively comply with necessary safety procedures. This voluntary aspect is essential because it promotes greater employee engagement and participation in workplace health and safety.  

Any individual with positive social influence over their peers and a vested interest in improving safety throughout the organization can be regarded as a safety leader, regardless of their managerial or supervisory position. Practically speaking, a safety leader should be more of a cultural influencer than a hall monitor. The most effective safety leaders are those who help their colleagues improve their safety practices without their peers even realizing it. These leaders are the individuals whom others approach for advice on best practices because they are confident that they will receive accurate and valuable information. 

Research findings suggest that both transactional and transformational leadership styles have a positive effect on safety behavior. Conversely, passive leadership is detrimental, leading to lower safety participation, lower safety consciousness, and a lower safety climate. Safety leadership involves setting the tone at the top, communicating safety expectations, empowering workers to speak up about safety concerns, and continuously improving safety performance. Strong safety leadership is essential in the waste management industry as it helps prevent accidents and injuries, protects workers’ health, and enhances the industry’s reputation.  

Safety Leadership Requires Commitment

Numerous empirical studies have established the significance of safety leadership and its strong influence on worker safety behavior. One of the most critical aspects of safety leadership is senior management’s commitment to safety. This commitment must be visible and demonstrated through action, not just words. For example, senior leaders can allocate sufficient resources for safety programs, invest in safety equipment and training, and actively participate in safety audits and inspections. By doing so, senior leaders show their commitment to safety, which motivates workers to follow their lead. 

Clear Communication is Key

Another essential aspect of safety leadership is communication. Leaders must communicate safety expectations and objectives clearly and consistently to all workers. They must ensure that workers understand the importance of safety and their roles and responsibilities in maintaining a safe workplace. Communication should be reciprocal, wherein workers feel comfortable raising safety concerns and reporting incidents without fear of retaliation. Leaders must also provide regular feedback to workers on safety performance and recognize and reward safe behavior. Safety leaders should also be able to explain the safety mission and safety goals clearly. The best safety leaders communicate lessons via the art of storytelling. 

Use Inspirational Motivation

Effective safety leadership requires leaders to put in significant effort to motivate workers to behave safely on the worksite. One practical approach that safety leaders can take is to recognize and reward workers who demonstrate safe behavior, encourage workers to report potential incidents, suggest safety improvements, and participate in safety decision-making. By providing incentives and opportunities for workers to participate in safety-related activities, leaders can foster a culture of safety that prioritizes safe behavior and encourages workers to report potential incidents and suggest safety improvements. 

In addition to motivation, empowerment is also critical in safety leadership. Workers must be given the power to speak up about safety concerns and suggest improvements, and they must have the authority to stop work if they believe it is unsafe. Leaders must create a safe and open environment where workers feel comfortable reporting safety incidents and making suggestions. Empowerment promotes a culture of safety, where everyone feels responsible for safety, and accidents and injuries are less likely to occur. 

Focus on Continuous Improvement 

Continuous improvement is a crucial component of effective safety leadership. To ensure the workplace is constantly evolving to become safer, leaders must regularly review safety performance and identify areas for improvement. This involves analyzing data, reviewing incidents and accidents, and gathering employee feedback to identify patterns and trends that could pose a safety risk. In addition to identifying areas for improvement, leaders must also set targets and goals for safety performance and measure progress against them. This not only helps to track progress but also provides a clear framework for the organization to work toward a safer workplace. Effective targets and goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) to ensure they are attainable and effective. 

Another crucial element of continuous improvement is learning from incidents and accidents. Leaders must take a proactive approach to investigate and analyze incidents, identify root causes, and develop corrective actions to prevent their recurrence. This includes sharing lessons learned with the organization to ensure the entire team can learn from the experience and avoid similar incidents in the future. 

Continuous improvement not only helps to create a safer workplace, but it also demonstrates a commitment to safety and sends a clear message to employees that their safety is a top priority. By creating a culture of continuous improvement, leaders can empower employees to take an active role in improving safety, which fosters a sense of ownership and accountability for safety throughout the organization. 

In conclusion, senior leaders must demonstrate their commitment to safety through visible actions, communicate safety expectations clearly and consistently, empower workers to speak up about safety concerns, and continuously improve safety performance. Safety leadership creates a culture of safety in which workers feel responsible for safety, and accidents and injuries are less likely to occur.  

The growth and development of safety leadership should not be restricted to training programs alone. In addition to teaching tactical skills that can be used to prevent injuries, coaching, and mentoring activities should also be included. Cultivating critical skills such as learning effective communication, delivering safety topics, training new employees, mentoring, pre-planning work, applying lessons learned, identifying hazards, evaluating incidents, and holding team members accountable are all essential skills that leaders should develop to promote safety in the workplace effectively. 

About Ashley Gill

Ashley Gill, CSP, is an industry leader with over 16 years of corporate EHS experience. She is pursuing her Doctor of Business Administration from the University of Missouri-St Louis where her current studies focus on ESG, and her dissertation will seek to expand upon existing safety research literature and create safer work environments. Ashley is an adjunct instructor for safety courses at Tarleton State University and Texas A&M Commerce.