If Safety Starts At The Top…Where Does It Finish?

Adapted from “Creating & Maintaining a Practical Based Safety Culture©”

We’ve all heard it. Most of us have said it and some of us have even said it more than once- “safety starts at the top!” It’s not a difficult concept to understand. If the management team at the top of the organization doesn’t place safety on their agenda and in their vision for the organization, it simply won’t get done. If this is the start of safety then let’s follow the path to the logical conclusion-where does safety finish? In other words, where does the real work of safety get done? Intention at the top of an organization will need to be supported by a lot of doing to actually make it a reality for the people performing the work.


Key Roles of Key People in the Executive Office

If the CEO/president of a corporation is a great leader, then the people reporting directly to him or her will be clear on what’s important to that leader. The direct reports to the CEO (usually with titles such as vice president or director) need to ensure that in their areas of responsibility, all who work there know what’s important. The only way to effectively communicate and demonstrate the importance of safety is to hold these people in the Vice President’s positions accountable for managing safety. The best way to let someone know what is important to you is to first communicate what is important, then back it up by  your actions. Taking the time to discuss safety and to ask about safety, and most importantly to do safety activities, will make it pretty clear to vice presidents and their subordinates that this issue is important to the boss. Chief executive officers need to make vice presidents accountable to them for creating safety in their area of control.

The Middle Management Team

Middle management teams play a critical role in taking a significant part of their day to communicate and implement the mission, vision and values of top management. Making safety activities operational takes a great deal of planning, organizing, implementing and controlling. This group of middle managers is who will make safety happen. Setting out activity objectives and goals is how most organizations decide what is going to be accomplished in any area of human effort.

Start with goals-something like, “by the end of the fiscal year we’d like 200,000 units sold”. Then the creativity really starts. We ask people to lay out activities to make sure that the goals are met. Ideas like, let’s streamline the process by pre assembling the “widget” parts before they are delivered to the paint booth. In my opinion, this is where some management teams fail miserably in creating safety. They set the wrong goals. Many folks set goals for what they don’t want to happen. This is silly. Setting goals for what you don’t want to create means you’re not really managing the factors to create something. Setting goals for reducing injuries only serves to frustrate most of us. It’s much better to do things to create safety than to create a situation where there’s a lack of injury.

If I’ve learned anything through my hazard assessments that there are a lot of dangers related to hand tools, I don’t have to rely on measuring hand injuries to know I’m managing safety. I really need to measure that my folks are doing what it takes to work safely with hand tools. I will, however, know exactly why I don’t have any hand injures - it’s because my team made it happen. I can also set out activities to ensure and measure that my employees are wearing their eye protection, inspecting the condition of their tools, properly maintaining those tools, and updating their training. These are all positive activities that I can establish and measure. If I do this well, I won’t have any injuries to count. If, over time, I see that my company is still experiencing injuries, I’ll need to try something different. I have not found the solution yet… but I will.

I once watched an assistant vice president tell a top management team that he was very proud of the results from last year in reducing vehicle accidents and damage. The charts clearly showed a 10% reduction in damage claims and corresponding costs. This was a proud moment, until one of the vice presidents asked, “How did we accomplish this reduction?” The smile turned to panic when the assistant VP really had no measurable data to show why they were safer (if indeed they were at all…they may have just been 10% luckier). Had they purposely created safety and the results experienced were naturally positive? Frankly, they could not be sure.

The following year they targeted the behaviours that caused the damage. They also interviewed staff on what procedures needed to change; they could describe in detail the progress on why their damage claims were being reduced and they could explain very well why the claims dropped by 40%.

We need to create safety through our activities, not avoid losses through guesses and luck. The losses won’t happen if we make it safe.

Now we get closer to where safety really happens. Work happens with the folks that are most important to an organization, but typically make up the lowest point on the organization chart. Front line supervisors and their groups of employees are where the rubber hits the road. Here’s where “safe production” happens. Here’s where the widgets get built and it is here where the most important safety activities are carried out. When employees and their supervisors are doing safety activities, they are creating safety.

Supervisors & Their Crews

Through the last few decades, the role of first line supervisors has dramatically changed. The number of supervisors to the number of employee ratios has gone from one to a few to one to many. The nature of employment has dramatically changed. Now more than ever, employees do not spend their 30 plus year careers with one employer. The criteria for choosing the supervisor to do all the safety work has changed so drastically that the supervisor can no longer do it all. I seriously doubt that they ever could!

Now that we’ve evolved and taken work innovation and participation in problem solving to the front line workers, then naturally the safety activities need to fall to the people who do the production. Inspections, training, observations, hazard assessments all need to be done with and by our workers. I’m not sure how we ever thought it would work any other way.

Indeed, safety starts at the top, but to be successful it needs to permeate throughout the organization through activities done at every level and by everyone.

Alan Quilley

Written by Alan Quilley

Alan D. Quilley is the author of The Emperor Has No Hard Hat – Achieving REAL Safety Results and Creating & Maintaining a Practical Based Safety Culture© . He is president of Safety Results Ltd., a Sherwood Park, Alberta OH&S consulting company (http://www.safetyresults.ca/). You can reach him at aquilley@safetyresults.ca.

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