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April 13, 2016

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Problems with safety leadership: identifying the fix

By Dave Nicholls, global HSE manager, Wood Group PSN

In my last blog I said that to have the best chance of success in improving safety leadership in your organisation you need to understand what needs fixing and there needs to be a willingness to change. As safety practitioners, we are not always that lucky! If you don’t have a clear idea about what needs fixing and there is no willingness to change in your organisation don’t give up hope. There are some things we can do.

Let’s explore this a bit further by looking at ‘what needs fixing’. I previously mentioned triggers that put safety leadership under the microscope. In some cases the trigger may give you a clear indication of the leadership issues that need to be addressed. Where you have clear pointers to weaknesses in safety leadership it is then simply a case of identifying the optimal solution for your organisation. What do I mean by optimal? Pragmatic, tailored to the size and complexity of your organisation, minimal bureaucracy….I’m sure you have some of your own criteria you can add.

What do you do when you don’t have any clear pointers to what is actually going wrong with safety leadership? For example: a deteriorating safety performance may not give you any clues to the ‘leadership fixes’ that will support a turnaround in safety performance. This might be the time to seek expert advice, carry out that safety culture survey or start a review of safety leadership. Of course these may not be options for your organisations for a whole number of reasons. The other factor to consider is that these approaches can take time and from a moral perspective it may be that your organisations needs to act sooner rather than later.

The good news is that you can quickly identify both short and long-term areas for improving safety leadership by:

  • Learning from others – seek out the safety leadership good practice within your own and other organisations. For those of us working in large multi-site organisations you’ll be surprised at how much good practice exists in your business – it just needs sharing.
  • Checking the latest guidance – your regulator and national safety organisations are a great place to start.

In my last blog I suggested you should be prepared to ‘experiment’ with potential safety leadership solutions in your organisation. By experiment I mean– “a course of action tentatively adopted without being sure of the outcome”. Your solution may not be right-first time, but nothing that continuous improvement can’t sort out. If it clearly isn’t working then stop, reflect on why, and then try something else. This isn’t failure – it’s a fact of life for a safety professional.

In my next blog I’ll explore what safety professionals can do when they are faced with organisational resistance to change. Time to get stealthy!

Dave Nicholls is global HSE manager for Wood Group PSN. He will speaking at the IOSH conference on 16 June at 14.35.

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