Informa Markets

Author Bio ▼

Safety and Health Practitioner (SHP) is first for independent health and safety news.
April 25, 2024

Get the SHP newsletter

Daily health and safety news, job alerts and resources

culture and behaviours

Safety Leadership: From virtual safety to real safety

Howard Lees CEng, FICE, Author and Director of Hollin Consulting discusses factors that can influence safety leadership. With a career in civil engineering and project management, Lees now focuses on writing and coaching for safety management.

Howard Lees, Director at Hollin Consulting

I am an engineer.

Many projects worldwide are led by engineers, and it is our responsibility to ensure the correct balance of safety compliance (the law) and safety leadership (the creation and maintenance of safe places for people to work). In my field, most project-leading engineers are fully qualified technically.

If there is a weakness, it is in the field of leadership. In some cases, leadership skills are assumed with advancement in status, and this can be problematic.

Safety leadership

Every organisation has a legal and moral responsibility to create safe workplace environments for everyone involved in their enterprise, whatever that may be. The leaders of the enterprise should be deliberately making sure that this imperative is created, measured, and maintained.

You might say that it’s a basic human right to be provided with a safe place to work by your employer. I have visited many organisations where the safety protocol is both evident and excellent. When safety is skilfully lead, safety thrives, and everyone goes home, safe, every day. If safety is excellent, everything else usually is too.

Workplace safety has two distinct supporting foundations. One is safety compliance — all the legal details and formal requirements, processes, systems, training etc. The other is safety leadership — how the leaders create and maintain a workplace environment so that safety can thrive.

Real safety’ blends these two components artfully and effectively. The people carrying out the productive tasks are working in environments created and maintained by their leadership. Safety performance is primarily the responsibility of the organisational leadership. In the same way that leaders are responsible for strategy, business planning, budgets and meeting milestones, leaders are also responsible for safety.

Safety chain of command

I have personal experience in every role in the chain of command on construction projects. I define the ‘safety chain of command’ as the people in the hierarchy that create safe places for people to work, including the practitioners, i.e. the people doing the work.

For construction projects the primary influencers that create and maintain the safety chain of command will likely be the Director, Project Manager, Site Manager, Supervisor and Worker. Information should move up and down this hierarchy in honest & equal volume and quality content.

This group is the primary influencer of the quality of workplace safety because every live construction site environment out there today is under the purview of these primary influencers. Everyone else has a secondary influence on safety (Safety advisors, business support people, IOSH etc).

It’s important to distinguish who really makes a difference in safety. This distinct chain of command creates and maintains safe working places. This principle also applies to other industries.

“These days some people appear to be more influenced by influencers than they are by experts”

The story of safety over the years appears in many available publications. It is ably described in Dominic Cooper’s excellent paper, ‘The efficacy of industrial safety science constructs for addressing serious injuries & fatalities (SIFs).’

Credit: Dole777/Unsplash

The paper reviews occupational injury trends from 1986 to 2018, and includes comment on safety Initiatives, unemployment rate, and notable disasters during this period. (Safety Science, Volume 120, December 2019, Pages 164-178). Dominic’s paper title may lead you to believe that he is an academic. He is, but he also used to be a scaffolder. He has eaten in the site canteen with everyone else!

Many typical mature organisations have multiple safety processes — often, so many processes that it becomes impossible to tell which are helping create a safe workplace and which stymie safe working.

The emergence of social media has created a huge impact on society, politics, organisations, families etc. These days some people appear to be more influenced by influencers than they are by experts. There’s a lot of unchecked and unwise bullshit in the world today and that’s sadly also true in the world of projects and organisations including safety.

Safety is now in a place where a serious review/reset is required. A combination of legislation, company safety processes, social media and client safety processes have led to a world where there are now too many significant distractions to the creation of a safe workplace.

Safety compliance is a multi-layered beast that can and does deliver dangerous levels of distractions resulting in significant instances that I call ‘blind eye syndrome:’ knowledge workers and manual workers alike do their best within the environment set for them by their leaders, feeling helpless to improve their workplace environments.

Is everyone happy with safety?

The pragmatic viewpoint around most good practitioners regarding today’s safety is to be cautiously optimistic. I am unhappy about a lot of things happening right now in the name of safety. I am irritated by anything that has morphed into a cottage industry comprising people taking money away from real safety and spending it on PR.

Pictures of irrelevant nonperformers wearing bow ties or ball gowns accepting safety awards that have very little to do with improving safety annoy me. Measures like ‘number of hours since last accident’ are a dubious thing to make into a headline. Organisations derive comfort because they have their safety departments, safety professionals and their monthly safety measures and reports with their coloured graphs.

The paradox is that virtual safety is both complex and complicated and real safety (leadership based) is simple and straightforward. So why do most organisations choose virtual safety? I think that ‘real safety’ is glanced at, then dismissed as too simplistic.

Teaching leadership skills to the chain of command is a misunderstood and unrealised keystone to success. All the best organisations do this competently and quietly. Dr Scott Geller talks at length about ‘actively caring.’ Is this non-macho credo too simple for the typical ‘virtual safety’ organisation?

Executives seem to desire one-page summary reports with coloured graphs showing red, amber and green coloured numbers. Red bad, green good. Up bad, down good. Work performance is made ‘virtual’ for these folks by their administrators. One safety professional said to me, “Our executives only really like instant pudding.” It means that they can review safety quickly which is a good thing for them. The chances are that the politics of belonging to an executive group are going to be much more enticing than having serious discussions on safety.

What are people currently asking us (Hollin) regarding safety?

Many organisations that contact us have a problem of some kind with safety incidents and injuries. They may have a client that is pressurising them, they may be being investigated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Occasionally, they want us to tell them why their worker threw themselves off their structure!

If an organisation has an immediate need for an opinion from us about safety, a conversation will take place between the client representative and one of our experts. Many ask us to design a safety programme for them with a fully costed solution to be considered in competition with other suppliers.

This request is fatuous, it reminds me of the classic request for us to propose a brand-new idea that has been fully tested! There is no such thing as an ‘off the shelf’ safety programme. Organisational behaviours are situational, they are unique.

Our response is always to ‘find out what’s really happening now, everywhere in the organisation.’ Step one is to agree on the steps that will help us discover the extent of the problems so that we can gather and analyse some data and workers opinions.

Then we can have an informed discussion regarding a prognosis going forward. It is common for us to unearth behaviours in organisations that the executives were utterly unaware of. The keys to the best solutions on safety are discovery, analysis and then strategy. We often go forward in success with the clients that demonstrate wisdom, patience, and great leadership.

The full version of this paper is available here.

SHP Webinars

Find upcoming live, interactive webinars plus on-demand sessions to watch back at your convenience.

SHP runs regular health and safety webinars on a wide range of topics, from high level thought leadership, to legislation updates and technical guidance.

Click below to see what’s coming up and what you can watch right now...


Related Topics

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments