I am not a safety expert. In fact, I used to be one of the most unsafe guys around, I’m sure.
When I started my career, I was brought up in forestry. We did a lot of remote work. We jumped out of helicopters. I packed a gun for bears. In that business, it’s very dangerous and we did a lot of things the “wrong way” back then. I did a lot of things wrong.
Am I passionate about safety? Absolutely. But I’m not a safety person. I’m an operational leader who adds value to the business through health and safety and environmental performance.
Your company’s safety leader doesn’t need to be a safety person either. In fact, it’s far more important that they’re a change-agent. Let’s take a closer look at who your safety leader should be.
The Want and the Will from the Top
The first thing a successful safety leader needs is backing from the CEO and the rest of the C-Level. If it’s not there, everything is just semantics. I always look at, “the Want and the Will.” If there is a Want and a Will for change from the top, we can make it happen.
I just experienced this with my own organization, which I recently joined in February of this year. The company has always been focused on health and safety, but they wanted a change and they wanted to “take it to the next level.” So, they actually asked me to open the Annual General Meeting (AGM).
We’d never had health and safety open the AGM.
They did that for two reasons. One, they said, “It’s a great way for you to introduce yourself to the team.” And two, they wanted to give safety a more prominent face.
At the AGM, I thought it was important to discuss a subcontractor fatality I experienced during my time in forestry. My CEO said, “You need to speak with passion. You need to make a personal connection, not just numbers and graphs.”
I said, “I think it’s important for people to hear it,” and he supported me.
He provided all the support, but probably would not have thought to tell a story about a fatality and the impact it had on me personally. That’s why I go back to the Want and the Will. I think sometimes safety leaders get caught up in, “my boss, my CEO, my board, they’re not supporting me.”
Maybe they’re trying to support you, but they don’t know what that support looks like. Maybe they just need a bit of guidance into what support you need.
Safety Leaders Need to Be Visible Leaders
I believe in visible leadership. We need to make sure that we get out there, instead of just talking about health and safety.
When you’re onsite, the older people you speak with have had different leadership come through. They’ve heard it all before. You’re just another suit coming by saying that something’s going to change.
If you try to get the old guard to change, you need more than just words. You have to show them. I show them by putting on my boots. I make sure I get out to the site and I get my hands dirty.
I talk to everyone out there and I follow up if they have a question.
Even if the answer is “no,” I still follow up. That instils this change into the minds of the people who will mentor others onsite.
For me as an operational person, never being a safety person before now, I always look at it with a practical, pragmatic approach. Everything has to be operational-focused. We want folks doing the right things all the time, not just when we’re around.
My mantra is, “People make decisions in the moment; it’s right or wrong, good or bad.”
But it’s really reflective of the culture that we create. Your safety leader needs to be the change-agent that can come in and personify the “Want and the Will” from the executive level, yet put their boots on and have real conversations about safety with frontline workers.
Steve Chaplin is vice-president of health, safety and environment at EllisDon. This article was initially featured as a blog post on the eCompliance website. Chaplin will be taking part in a panel discussion at eCompliance’s NXT2018 event. He will be discussing The Future of EHS. Send comments and Industry Perspectives column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.