Canadian Rental Service

Safety leadership

By Jeff Thorne   

Features Business Intelligence

There is little agreement around the proper approach to a sustainable safety system. Each company seems to have its own ideas about how it should be managed. Some organizations prefer a behaviour-based system, others implement a systems approach. If your goal is to achieve a strong sustainable health and safety program, there is a need for safety leadership, not just safety management.

Leading is the act that identifies and demonstrates the importance of safety. It involves identifying and understanding the motivating factors as to why safety matters and why workers should want to buy in to working safely. Understanding what motivates workers is key to leadership. When we take a close look at managing safety, we are looking at the act of breaking down job tasks, identifying hazards and implementing corresponding controls. The essence of managing is the art of making things happen, while leading is very different. Many organizations do a great job when it comes to managing a process, but miss opportunities when it comes to safety leadership. Failure to have management leadership and commitment, competent supervision and employee participation clearly disrupts the internal responsibility system. This carries the realistic potential to create loss.

Safety leaders must be educated about their roles and responsibilities and have clearly defined goals and objectives that assist in driving improvements in safety performance. Management and safety leadership must fully believe that all incidents, injuries and illnesses are preventable. To demonstrate leadership, management must walk the talk. Leadership must be visible through workplace inspections conducted by management. It can be demonstrated through frequent communication of safety information and encouraging employee participation in safety activities and monitoring such activities. Employees must be afforded the opportunity to provide input into the design and operation of safety programs and decisions that affect their safety and health. Safety leaders should never undervalue employee input and, when feasible, implement employee ideas.

Strong safety leadership involves fostering positive safety behaviours. Changing safety behaviour requires a change in attitude. To change attitudes, safety leaders must be able to motivate employees to want to change. Strong safety leaders know how to motivate their workers.

Safety must never be viewed as situational or an add-on to more important business activities. Safety adds value to the organization in tangible ways. Those that have direct roles for safety must receive support from management. These parties include health, safety and environmental managers and joint health and safety committees or health and safety representatives. In order to maintain and improve health and safety in the workplace, these parties must be provided with the necessary resources and cooperation to complete their job.


We hear all too often that those parties responsible for safety aren’t supported in their safety efforts and receive pushback from management. If there is a standardized system for safety that identifies health and safety responsibilities, it becomes easier to integrate. Everyone in an organization is an employee and safety has to become everyone’s personal responsibility. A key area of focus when it comes to accountability must be front-line supervision. To be successful in safety, leaders must be held accountable for safety the same way they are held accountable for other business elements such as quality, service and production. They must be measured on how they integrate safety into the business process. Upper management must be fully involved in safety to be role models and lead by example. They must hold front-line supervisors accountable for safety performance. Areas of accountability should include delivery of safety communication, workplace inspections and root-cause analysis.

Jeff Thorne is manager of training and consulting at Occupational Safety Group

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