Speak to health and safety professionals and they will tell you that leadership visibility and engagement with the frontline is fundamental to improving safety culture and performance. But the same professionals also tell us that their leaders don’t spend enough time in the field focussing on safety, and they aren’t as effective as they could be when they do.
When we speak to business leaders in safety focused organisations they unanimously agree that they have a key role to play in setting the precedent for a strong safety culture. They also agree they could do more safety walks and frontline engagements, but that they often don’t because they don’t have the confidence to do it well.
The challenge is that while organisations have established safety walk or tour programmes, they are often very programmatic in nature. Walks are scheduled in and leaders are measured on the numbers of walks and observations they make, not on the quality of the conversations they have.
Leaders often don’t have the knowledge to have confident and meaningful conversations with operators. The scheduled nature means operators know leaders are out and about looking at safety and it feels engineered. Operators can feel observed and judged and just a little bit uncomfortable.
For leadership safety engagements to become a solid foundation of safety culture they have to become a natural part of the way a leader goes about their work, not a stilted tick box exercise. Engagements should be ad-hoc and focused. If a leader is walking from A to B on a site – why not stop and consider a specific activity with their safety lenses on. If setting time aside to go out on a planned observation, prepare first, identify a hazard or activity to focus on, then consider what you should be looking for and what questions you can ask to have a rich conversation.
The solution to increasing leaders’ confidence is equipping them with what to look for and what to say in a quick and easy way. For example, by providing simple pocket guides, that focus on key hazards and simplify control standards into the essentials, suggesting questions to ask and things to look out for, it’s possible to turn what is often an awkward ask of leaders into an easy and rewarding activity for them to do.
While every forward thinking organisation has some kind of leadership safety walk programme, the question is to what extent are leaders doing it naturally and well enough to make a real impact on their safety culture?