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Safety first: Why everyone in a workplace needs to be a safety leader

Dave Blanchard* says a safety culture doesn’t start and end with a designated manager — it’s everyone’s responsibility to be a safety leader.


Photo: Heorhii Heorhiichuk

At last month’s US National Safety Congress, I attended a panel discussion on ‘Getting Frontline Leaders to Become Safety Leaders’.

Panellist Roger Green, former Director of environment, health and safety (EHS) with industrial manufacturer ThyssenKrupp NA, neatly summarised the situation from the get-go: “Good, hard workers may not always be good leaders.”

“Leadership is a skill that needs to be developed and encouraged.”

Echoing Green, Steve Curry, corporate EHS manager with Armstrong Flooring added, “You can’t expect a line supervisor to instinctively know how to be a leader.”

“It’s a skill that has to be learned and supported.”

At some organisations – too many organisations, agreed the panellists – safety is often one of those ‘it’s somebody else’s problem’ areas, but as Green emphasised, “Safety is not just the responsibility of the person with ‘safety’ in their job title.”

“The more people who are invested in safety … the more advanced that organisation will be in safety practices.”

“Well-trained frontline leaders are an invaluable asset … Safety is not an added responsibility – everybody needs to be involved in safety.”

“You need organisational buy-in that you’re not only going to invest in safety, but also in developing safety leaders,” explained Kevin Backus, ThyssenKrupp’s senior vice-president and general counsel.

“You don’t have to leave safety just in the hands of EHS professionals.”

“It’s one thing to tell somebody to do something, but quite another to give them the tools to get that accomplished.”

“The perfect place to start with a corporate cultural transformation is safety.”

To that end, ThyssenKrupp launched a company-wide Safety and Leadership Development Program, which to date has trained more than 3,000 employees.

“The course is about safety,” Backus noted, “but it’s more about leadership.”

Chevon Cook, Safety Manager with the Wisconsin Safety Council, said there are many reasons to justify an investment in safety culture, such as reductions in lost time, incidents and workers compensation, and other tangible benefits of operating a safer workplace.

Another frequently heard safety challenge for organisations is the attitude of employees who say, “We’ve taken every safety course you asked us to take, so now we know it all.”

As Backus acknowledged, “Complacency is dangerous because it’s hard for safety managers to see it coming.”

“You don’t want your workers to get so comfortable that they assume bad things won’t happen.”

“You need to challenge people, get them out of their comfort levels.”

Lee Shelby could tell you something about the attitude of complacency.

As a power linesman at a utility company, he was constantly exposed to 13,000 volts of electricity, but he admits he was “a little cocky” and didn’t always follow the safety protocol the job required.

While wearing the wrong type of gloves, those 13,000 volts went right through his inadequately protected hands, and he ended up losing both hands.

“Being complacent and getting distracted in the workplace can change your life in an instant,” Shelby said.

In short, you can have the best protective equipment, the most advanced technology, the most intensive training programs and the most rigorous EHS protocols and still come up short if one employee — and it just takes one — decides to take a shortcut.

‘Safety Leader’ isn’t just a tagline on a business card – it’s a way of life that every employee needs to embrace, every single day.


Dave Blanchard is Senior Director of Content at EHS Today.

This article first appeared at www.ehstoday.com