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This is an article based on coaching I have performed for leaders at WestRock. It discusses the leader’s role in creating an injury free culture, where employees make the safe choice every time. It highlights the importance of regular safety observation and messaging and the necessary aspects of creating this culture.
Leaders create the safety culture at our sites – by what we expect, what we inspect, what we talk about (or don’t talk about, when we should), how we talk about it, how often we talk about it, what we measure / make important, and what we will or will not accept. Leaders must set high standards of behavior and ensure employees have the knowledge, skills and expectation to conduct risk assessments and perform their jobs safely.
Observations and messaging are the means for leaders to inspect for adherence to the procedures / practices, and regularly reinforce what is important to them and valued by our organization. This time on the floor is only effective when two things happen:
Observation: Leaders recognize potential at risk conditions / behaviors, act, and hold people accountable for their role:
Messaging: Leaders discuss safety with employees in a credible way that recognizes good behaviors (positive reinforcement), and engages people in finding safe solutions to things that are questionable or flat out unsafe. In other words, create pride, ownership, and the understanding that leaders care.
Observation and messaging are skills that can be learned as well as improved. Here are some ways to develop these skills.
Go with a purpose – Do not just “tour the facility.” Decide, in advance, the location you intend to go to, and what specifically you intend to inspect or observe. Unless you come upon an unexpected outage or issue, stick to your intended objective.
Examples of focus topics:
Watch the people and the equipment – Unsafe behaviors contribute to a high number of injuries, yet many leaders shift attention to how the equipment is running rather than how people are interacting with it.
If we see an unsafe behavior, we need to avoid the temptation to blame the employee and instead ask, why are they doing it this way? Seek to understand from their point of view.
Observe critically – Ask what would happen if…something slipped or shifted, moved a bit earlier or later, started or stopped at a different time, was heavier or lighter, etc. Understand the potential variation in the process and how the employee could be affected.
Spend quality time for observation – Short or “fly-by” observations tell us almost nothing about what the person does and the kind of situations they must deal with during a day.
Learn observation skills from others – Practice paired observations and take others with you so you calibrate what each other sees. When two people share what they see, we often improve both persons’ observation skills. This is a great way to understand the observation skills of people in your organization and help develop them further.
Find the opportunity to learn – Approach an observation from the viewpoint of a learner, not a teacher.
Evaluate the big picture
Messages are fundamentally of three varieties:
Each person and situation has different considerations for an effective conversation about safety. Here are some aspects of effective messaging or coaching.
Know your audience and tailor your messages.
The stars – Have their hearts and minds engaged in safety.
The stars are often natural leaders and can be enrolled to help build a culture where safety is valued.
The at-risk – The people we worry about may make poor choices – particularly at 2:00am, when nobody else is around and they are dealing with a risky situation.
We have very few at-risk employees, but they consume a disproportionate amount of leadership time. They have more minor injuries and a higher risk of serious injury during their career. As long as they are part of the organization, we can never give up trying to engage their hearts and minds to ensure they will make safe choices.
Our messages must contain clear expectations and demand 100% compliance to standards.
If after our best efforts, they are still unwilling to work safely, we must hold them accountable.
The good – The clear majority of our people.
They are the heart of the organization. As they go, so goes the organization’s culture.
They respond to credible leadership that provides:
It is our job to provide these things. They enable good people to safely do good work and feel valued.
Establish relationships – Be seen and heard listening and speaking to people about safety (on the floor).
Make it personal and use your influence – As a leader, you have a tremendous amount of influence. More than you probably realize. People pay attention to everything you say, do and make important. Use that influence make safety change!
Set the tone
Demonstrate a bias for action and hold people accountable – Demonstrate a sense of urgency and energy in driving safety results.
Recognize safe choices
Question the acceptability of risk
Care & inquire
Share your observation and express your concern about the injury potential.
Question the system – When you are discussing a safety shortcoming (physical condition, behavior, process), avoid falling into the “blame and train” trap where all we do is assign fault and re-train the people involved. Instead, question what part of our safety management system failed and how will we fix it.
It is only when we understand the true root causes of our safety failures that we will be able to implement sustainable corrective actions.
Encourage peer feedback
Assess your effectiveness
Debrief the conversation. You can do this for yourself if the discussion was just between you and an employee, or with another leader, if one was present to hear the discussion and could give you feedback. Questions to ask:
Questions for leaders not based at the site
For leaders who are not normally based out of the facility, here are some additional questions to consider asking:
1. Show me your current year’s safety improvement plan and let’s discuss the status.
2. What are your most frequent type of injuries?
3. Show your last Safety Management System self-assessment.
4. How are your employee engagement efforts, for safety, coming along?
5. Tell me about your safety observation program.
6. Tell me about your Safety Committee (NOTE: If you have the opportunity, meet with the committee to show your support and better understand what they are doing).
You will most likely have additional methods for performing quality safety observations and delivering key messages effectively, as we all have our own style, but I trust this article has provided you with some additional points to consider that will make you an even more effective safety leader.
Ok…what are we waiting for…it’s time to get out on the floor!
Let’s talk safety!