Is safety leadership the panacea for unsafe workplaces?

National Safety Cover May 2013The May 2013 National Safety magazine has an article on safety leadership by Australia lawyer, Michael Tooma.  It is a terrific article but it also highlights the lack of case studies of the practical reality of safety leadership in Australia and the great distance still required to improve safety. Tooma starts the article with

“It is widely recognised that strong safety leadership is integral to work, health and safety performance in any organisation.” [emphasis added]

Later he writes

“There is little doubt that safety leadership is a prerequisite to a positive safety culture in any organisation.”

These equivocations may indicate authorial caution on the part of Michael Tooma but  they could illustrate that the role of safety leadership still remains open to question.

Tooma, provides an example to support his understanding by referring to Aurecon Hatch‘s general manager, Ross Parslow, saying

“A key element of building a safety leadership culture has been our focus on distributing leadership and ownership of safety. We have established safety leadership teams at the group level, major project level and workgroup level.”

How is Parslow’s “safety leadership culture” different from being a respected and diligent business manager?  How are the “safety leadership teams” different from the longstanding obligation to consult with all levels of a workforce on occupational health and safety issues?  Is it necessary to build a new way of managing safety with a new lexicon when it may have been possible to achieve similar change by using existing legislative and managerial concepts of consultation, committees and hazard management?

Parslow’s safety leadership teams are reminiscent of many of the elements of industrial democracy and traditional (ie. Robens) consultative OHS models.  It is interesting to wonder whether much of what is considered safety leadership is really a type of “occupational democracy” based on frequent OHS discussions, shared values and collaborative decision making.

(It is also worth noting the interchange and blending of language and concepts in much of the safety leadership/culture discussion.  There is a looseness about terminology that obfuscates the message and the OHS profession already has a struggle with clarity of concepts and language.)

Tooma spends a considerable amount of the article discussing the findings of the 2011 survey by the Australian Institute of Management and the Safety Institute of Australia.  These surveys are, at best, indicative so the weight given to the 2011 Business of Safety Survey is a little surprising.  Tooma concludes his article with a call for a realignment.

“While the top echelon of management in Australia views itself as providing the safety leadership necessary to develop and foster an effective safety culture in its organisations, workers down the chain are not convinced.  Managers must do more than talk about safety: they must provide visible safety leadership.”

But will safety leadership lead to an increased level of safety?  What Tooma seems to be saying is that a change of action and attitude in senior management will change the behaviours of those lower in the organisational structure.  This may be the case in middle management and supervisors but the same level of change is required to those directly on the shopfloor, factories and coalfaces.

Safe Work Australia suggested, in its latest OHS National Strategy, that one leadership outcome is that

“Organisational leaders foster a culture of consultation and collaboration which actively improves work health and safety.” (page 9)

But consultation and collaboration have been legislative obligations for decades.  Does having to restate such a belief indicate that such techniques  and obligations have failed since their introduction in the 1970s and 1980s?

It is unclear whether Tooma is suggesting senior executives display their safety leadership along the organisational communication lines or jump across the structure from the head office to the worker.  Tooma says the AIM/SIA business survey indicates

“…significant disagreement between senior management and specialist safety personnel in relation to evaluating performance and priorities on WHS [work, health and safety]”

But is the problem with the senior executives or the safety personnel?  Where does the misunderstanding of safety leadership sit?  Tooma’s conclusion indicates that the safety leadership message is not travelling to the required workplace levels.  So there is either something blocking the communication of these values and concepts or there is something fundamentally wrong with the message being communicated – safety leadership itself.

Tooma mentions that

:…Trevor Kletz’s 2001 review and analysis of 20 major industrial accidents identified poor management at the root of all incidents.”

But poor management is not the same as inadequate safety leadership, and Kletz’s analyses are primarily on the process industries and not in others which are likely to have different historical and cultural bases.  Kletz’s long history in process safety is admirable, if not legendary, but applying his conclusions into other industrial sectors is difficult.

The lack of clarity and definition around safety leadership is worsened when regulatory codes and guidelines advocate safety leadership without explaining the OHS regulators’ understanding of such concepts.  Barry Sherriff, attempted an explanation in 2011 as part of the OHS harmonisation process but a plain English translation, with case studies, is required.  Also Sherriff’s reference point was the Work Health and Safety laws that have not been applied in all Australian States and are increasingly being played with in those States that have adapted them.

Tooma has provided a very useful contribution to the discussion about safety leadership.  But the discussion requires more clarity, more definition and more consistency. (It has to be said that Tooma does provide some of this in his longer form writings and books.) But with so many consultants and business advisers spruiking value-based safety, safety leadership and other products aimed at the C-suite, it is difficult to cut through to the level of clarity required to say definitively that safety leadership saves lives and reduces injury.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

6 thoughts on “Is safety leadership the panacea for unsafe workplaces?”

  1. If that\’s all it takes


    and if it really is very simple why is it so rare?

    Further, if it all depends on the boss saying and demonstrating decent OHS behaviour, then I repeat my question: why is it so rare then?

  2. So now apply some of this: some 80% of Australia\’s workers work in small to medium workplaces. With a little imagination you can almost walk in the worker\’s shoes and handle his/her daily tasks. You can also empathise with some of the daily anxiety and time pressure.

    The work day is made up of a series of – usually – small tasks, a routine that also contains the good and the bad of H&S matters. And generally a lot of time and personal pressure. Usually – not always – there\’s little proper and sustained attention to these daily matters of H&S.

    How exactly is safety leadership (in any current form) going to lead to the daily small improvements that are so urgently needed?

    A 2-day tour through a range of such workplaces, combined with discussions with workers and managers would demonstrate that improvements should be at those series of small tasks, not at the theoretical or meta- theoretical pie in the sky.

    Once it\’s seen that these are improving, much else will follow. Without such small daily improvements not much else will change.

    1. There are two co-related issues at play here. The first part is that you cannot get continuous traction on the \’small daily improvements\’ unless the boss (no matter the size of the business) says unambiguously that safety matters and that they demonstrate that as assertively as possible all of the time.

      The second issue is that the small daily safety issues are often not safety issues at all they are process issues, like cleaning up the lathe after completing a task. My brother-in-law in NZ is a classic example. H owns a smallish engineering firm. He asked me to help him get his safety act together. We got the whole team in a room and he stated (was coached) clearly what he wanted and expected and why (because he cared about them). He told them that there would be no arguments and that he was going to be involved in supporting the safety efforts. Every time he walked through the Plant he would offer \’bouquets and brickbats\’ as he went but always demonstrating consistent behaviours, and gradually saw the results he wanted. two years later its a different place, clean, orderly, organised and damned productive because of it.

      All very simple and not at all pie-in-the-sky.

  3. Kevin – this is getting to the very heart of the OHS \’problem\’. What people say and what they really believe are too often very different things.
    Of course the \’C-suite\’ wants to say the right things and they may sincerely believe that saying the right thing at their level is all they need to do, but it isnt. Human beings can detect ambiguity and lack of genuine sincerity a mile off, weve\’ been doing it for thousands of years. But the proof of a person\’s actual beliefs is in their behaviour and the active demonstration of their values in what they do.
    If the Board uses the \’commitment\’ word but don\’t make it absolutely clear to the CEO and senior leadership team that they mean what they say and that it is non-negotiable then the lack of clarity and alignment starts there. By the time it soaks down through the hierarchy its just a slippery word that doesn\’t command the safety behaviours at the level of workers.
    Pity of this is – if they did mean it it would put a turbo-charger on their business the likes of which cannot be replicated by other methods of productivity improvement. If you cannot transmit goosebumps of sincerity and engagement through the ranks then, sooner or later the inevitable happens, With engaged Leadership, even if it does happen they will learn from it and become stronger. If they aren\’t engaged they\’ll just stumble on and do it again.
    So no, leadership cannot prevent accidents, but it sure does minimise them and turn the experience to good use. We\’re slow learners aren\’t we.

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