The practical manifestation of safety leadership

Professor Andrew Hopkins‘ frequent appearances at safety conferences are always fascinating as he does not simply trot out the same presentation each time. He is certainly not a priest with the same 52 sermons each year.

At the Building Safety conference Hopkins spoke briefly about mindfulness but grounded this in how executives and others should inspect a worksite and what questions to ask. He discussed audits also but there will be more on that in another article.

Hopkins insisted that executives should show leadership and begin to satisfy their positive OHS duty and their due diligence obligations by walking their worksites, talking with their workers and, most importantly, listening to the answers. There are no hard and fast rules or guidelines on the frequency of these visits but he said that the executives should NOT be accompanied. Having a phalanx of execs in pristine PPE approaching a work group puts the workers on guard and makes them self-conscious.

I have seen this on construction sites over the years when I have bumped into an executive on their site walk. They can blend into the workforce and receive more honest answers to their project and safety questions.

Hopkins says that execs should not talk to the same workers at each site. Select workers at random but especially contractors. Questions should remain focussed on safety and not imply any criticism because the walks are principally a fact-finding mission. One question or comment that I have used on my walks is “tell me what I can do to make your job safer”. This indicates that I have some ownership of the job and that I am not trying to find fault.

Hopkins suggests these type of questions, amongst others:

  • Tell me about your job
  • What do you think can go wrong?
  • What are the greatest risks in this job?
  • Have we controlled these issues?
  • Are there any safety issues that we haven’t addressed?
  • Are there times when workers feel the need to take shortcuts?

The importance of language is very high if one supports a just or no blame culture of safety. Elsewhere in the Building Safety conference, speakers reinforced the need to be careful in what one asks and how ones asks. This was not for the purpose of limiting legal exposure, as many lawyers advocate, but to illicit important information about worker safety and, by inference, the health of the project.

One of the questions from the conference floor to Hopkins was that some executives feel silly asking questions. I know from my OHS consultancy that questions may reveal an ignorance in the questioner but, if asked for the purpose of improving safety, the answers are usually detailed and highly informative, often to the client or supervisor as well. Hopkins stressed that humility is essential in asking these questions. I would add that there needs to be a genuineness in the executive’s interest in safety. A site walk should not be about meeting a key performance indicator but about a genuine desire to improve safety and save people’s lives. Workers can smell a fraud or a disinterested executive, particularly if the site walks are in the week before the Board meeting or the remuneration review.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

6 thoughts on “The practical manifestation of safety leadership”

  1. For mine this can be reduced to a bunch of simple truisms that I\’ve observed over many years of being in this game: 1. In the absence of that elusive \”holy grail\” of a safety culture, any manager is going to be unaware of important safety information, to one degree or another. That ain\’t a question of incompetence, it\’s just a very difficult to avoid reality; 2. People tend to be able to pick insincerity in a flash, and will tend to be looking for ulterior motives whenever questioned by a manager; 3. Truism 1 + 2 = Forget \”due diligence\”, forget \”showing the management flag\” – get out there to learn and frame questions accordingly. I have yet to find a single worker who doesn\’t appreciate you genuinely wanting to learn from them.

    Col Finnie.

  2. I think the key to the walk around is for the Boss (or key decision maker) to compare what their managers are saying to them to what is \’actually\’ occurring on the ground. With the intent over time to reduce the gap between both information sources as much as possible.

  3. There can be times when individuals may not want to comment directly to this type of enquiry for fear of repercussions as a supplement it would also benefit to have a system where individuals could contact anon with safety concerns to someone who could take their concerns or investigate to the same exec.

  4. Hi Kevin,
    Hopkins is absolutely spot on. The whole vexed issue of getting people to work safely could be made a lot simpler if executives did as you suggest. Get them out of their ivory towers and talking informally with people at ALL levels in their organisation.
    If an executive wonders if the edicts issued from \’on top\’ get disseminated through the organisation, they simply have to ask the lower graded workers. A lot of executives would say that\’s what we have managers and supervisors for, we don\’t have time as we\’re busy with strategic issues. I say, are you sure the truth is being reported back to you, or does it get \’cleaned up a little\’ on its way to the top floor. As for time, simply a matter of priorities; will the business fail through taking a genuine interest in the workers, I think not.
    As for middle management and supervisors, they will deliver whatever they are being held accountable for, if it\’s \”safe production\”, then that is what they will deliver.
    When executives are seen to take a genuine and sustained interest in the safety and welfare of their workers, great things are possible for that organisation.

    Peter Robinson

  5. There is no easy way for an office based executive to go on a site safety walk.

    What exists is in his heart – his ethical values and compassion – is the important thing. Otherwise his responses and reactions will be inappropriate.

    An executive listening and responding positively to the workers and the site managers at meetings is far more useful than that person being relatively incognito out on site

    It is more sensible and valuable for the GM/construction manager to conduct those site safety walks together with the health and safety representative.

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