Management support: We all say we want it, need it, and can’t do our jobs without it. Saying that management support is essential for safety “success” has in fact become something of a safety profession mantra. A majority of safety professionals, 51.2% according to a 2002 ASSE survey (Kendrick/Pater 2), however, don’t believe they receive that support. But what do we mean by management support? What specifically should we want our managers to do to in support of safety? Is asking for support even the right question? As a staff/support function, shouldn’t safety professionals really be asking what they can do to support management? If we really want support for safety, not just ourselves, we must also know what to ask for.
The “Wrong” Support
Over the years I’ve come to believe that one of the principal reasons management fails to support safety is that we (the safety profession) far too often ask them to support ineffective, and sometimes counterproductive, practices. Some safety professionals believe, for example, that management must rigidly enforce the safety rules and procedures with punitive methods that kill employee trust and cooperation. Others cite the importance of management in financing and paying lip service to their flavor-of-the-month, off-the-shelf quick fixes and “silver bullets.” Perhaps worst of all, some safety professionals seem to view management support as firm backing for their attempts to run the entire organizational safety effort with management and the workers as idle bystanders. Support that enables the abdication of management from the safety effort is not what you should want.
The “Right” Support
Rather than attempting to manage safety for them, we should want and expect our management to be good managers – of safety! It’s not enough merely writing memos and speeches for managers to deliver. Safety professionals need to help management actively drive the safety effort like other important organizational objectives (e.g., production, quality, schedule, costs). Most managers got to their positions because they were successful at getting things done. Safety professionals should encourage managers to use the same skills that got them recognized as effective leaders for the safety effort. Why manage safety differently than other important organizational objectives?
So What Specifically Should We Ask Our Management to Do?
After 40 years of observing and assessing both successful and unsuccessful safety efforts, I’ve concluded that we need only three things from our management to attain and sustain safety excellence. Here’s the support for safety I want from management and what I tell managers anytime I get a chance.
1. Own safety. Line management safety ownership cannot be delegated and must be demonstrated. Don’t attempt to farm it out to safety specialists, consultants or employee committees. Only you (line management) can make safety an organizational value and part of the culture. Maximize your resources, including your safety staff, the management team and workers, to help you succeed but stay actively and visibly involved. Recognize that just as you own production you also own how that production is achieved. Production, quality, cost and safety, are all your responsibilities. Safety problems are your problems. Just telling employees to work safely is not enough. Get out of the office and see what your workers are doing. Use these work observations to partner with your employees to identify ways you can work together to help perform work more safely.
For greater details into the concepts of Safety Management by Walking Around, see these articles:
Many high safety performance companies believe these on-the-floor, face-to-face employee interactions are the single most important action managers can take to promote safety (Thomen, 1991). Nothing you do will pay a bigger dividend than your visible good example and commitment. It’s simply not realistic to expect employees to take safety more seriously than you show them you do. Finally, be very skeptical of any quick fix safety solution, especially if it takes safety management out of your hands or requires you to handle safety differently than your other top business priorities.
2. Manage safety like it’s important. Make sure you have integrated safety into every aspect of your business from design and procurement to facility shutdowns. If you don’t build safety into your business functions, you’ll later find safety in competition with them. Like quality, safety is merely part of the work process that is your ultimate responsibility. Don’t let it get separated.
Ensure that you and your management team meet routinely to hold yourselves accountable and to personally discuss (and not just listen to the safety manager) safety issues and progress – like you do for other important business objectives. Ensure timely and appropriate corrective actions are taken – and that they are effective. Your employees expect and deserve prompt attention to their concerns and suggestions for improvement. In short, expect and lead continuous safety improvement.
If you and your other line managers aren’t already leading the safety effort with active participation, improvement is not going to happen overnight. The point is to get started and don’t stop. First you’ll need an effective PDCA approach to safety (ANSI Z10-2012 is a useful guide) that is committed to continuous improvement, and the will to make it happen. You may well find that you just need to work smarter rather than harder.
3. Get Your Employees Involved. Although safety is ultimately your responsibility, you can’t manage it by yourself. I have not seen top safety performance in any organization that did not have active and widespread engagement of the workforce in the effort. Top safety performers recognized years ago that employees aren’t the safety problem; they are an important part of the safety solution. These companies engage their workforce in a variety of meaningful safety activities. They expect, and get, the large majority of their safety input (i.e., opportunities for improvement) from their workers. They actively solicit and respond promptly to this input because they know it gets results. Employees are given genuine opportunities to influence their own safety by helping design their work environment, policies and work procedures. This adult-to-adult engagement clearly demonstrates to the workforce that they are respected and taken seriously. As a result they are much more likely to work safely – and more productively.
Every employee wants and deserves the support of his or her management. Safety professionals are no different. We all want respect, decent remuneration and adequate resources to accomplish our assigned tasks. It is also true that not all managers are created equal and we don’t always get the managers we would want. Certainly not everyone in a management position is an effective manager of anything, including safety. If your management believes that safety is your responsibility – not theirs – you’ve got your work cut out for you. Regardless of your management, however, the main role of the safety function should be to provide the best possible guidance (i.e., support) to line managers who alone possess the responsibility and capability to achieve high performance in safety. Safety professionals need to stop trying to do all things safety and instead use their talents, expertise and good judgment to support management in doing the right thing.
ANSI Z10-2012, American National Standard – Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems.
Kendrick, James and Pater, Robert. 2006. “The Future of Safety Leadership” Presented at the 2006 ASSE Professional Development Conference in Orlando, FL.
Thomen, J. R. (1991). Leadership in Safety Management. New York: Wiley.