I started preparing a speech for an upcoming luncheon sponsored by our state’s labor and industries (L&I) risk management folks. The attendees will be CEO’s and owners of large construction and management companies in our region. I was going to wait until the last minute and throw something together, until I found out that the newly appointed state director of L&I will be there. Gulp, there goes the idea of “winging it”. Crap, guess I better hunker down and put digits to keypad. But, what to talk about? After all, I’m new to the industrial safety playground. The last thing I want to do is fall off the slide by showing my ignorance or pretend to be something I’m not.
After some thought, I decided to talk about something I do know, and it directly influences industrial safety; Executive Leadership.
A strong corporate safety culture starts at the top. You may have the most talented and effective leader for the organization. But, if he/she does not make safety a priority…wait, scratch that… a VALUE, then the rest of the organization won’t embrace the value either. Conversely, you can have an executive who fully embraces safety, yet is incapable of influencing the safety culture due to poor communications skills, lack of credibility, etc… Regardless, in today’s environment a company’s health, safety and environmental record is a directly reflection on how well the organization is being managed and lead.
As a newly appointed fire chief in my previous life I took it upon myself to brush up on my leadership knowledge. In doing so, I stumbled across a book written by retired Navy Captain D. Michael Abrashoff, titled “It’s Your Ship”. Published in 2002, the book is a collection of short stories and lessons learned in dramatically improving his ship’s crew morale, performance, safety and reputation within two years. A quick read, the book offers practical advice and examples that translate easily into the para-militaristic culture of the fire service. I purchased the book for every chief level officer I promoted.
A few examples of Abrashoff’s wisdom resonated with me;
- Take Command “Empowering means defining the parameters in which people are allowed to operate and then setting them free.”
- Lead by example “Leaders need to understand how profoundly they affect people, how their optimism and pessimism are equally infectious, how directly they set the tone and spirit of everyone around them.”
- Listen aggressively “I decided my job was to listen aggressively and pick up on every good idea the crew had for improving the ship’s operation.”
- Communicate purpose and meaning “When people feel they own an organization they perform with greater care and devotion. They want to do things right the first time, and they don’t have accidents by taking shortcuts for the sake of expediency.”
Each of these directly relates to safety leadership. When was the last time you saw the CEO in the field, with the sole purpose of assessing and communicating the importance of job safety? Do corporate managers use the same safety rules and equipment when performing home repairs as they do on the job? Are employees REALLY granted stop work authority? Is it routinely implemented? Is it viewed as a positive rather than a negative? Is personal/home safety a component of your company safety strategy? When was the last time an employee safety improvement suggestion was and implemented? Do the employees feel they are valued members of the company team? Are they recognized for safe work practices, even at the expense of time/money?
These questions are just the tip of the iceberg as it relates to effective leadership and safety. I have a long ways to go in uncovering the rest. But, at least I now have a 20 minute speech in the can!