Championing Safety

Championing Safety works best when leaders from senior management and worker levels simultaneously come together to spearhead change. This is a proven way to significantly elevate injury prevention performance and culture.

Most Safety leaders know they can't effectively go it alone, attempting to drive Safety initiatives just by themselves. High-level make-it-happeners know that stimulating and setting significant change requires energy, time, and broad-scale buy-in. Some would-be leaders still don't get that the era of "Don't question, just do as I say" is long gone. There are good reasons for this: Current workscape challenges require being able to change perspective and actions in a spread and thinning workforce, to elicit willing interest and adherence to new or changing protocols or methods, deal with younger or older workers who might be reflexively authority-resistant, navigate through skeptical groups with diminished trust for management, and much more. One-way, overly directive leadership may generate bare-bones, cover the rear compliance at best but rarely if ever energized commitment or build stick-to-it improvements.

But there are leadership structures and approaches that can indeed yield significant upgrades, as we've found time and again over the past thirty years of working with companies. We know that attaining and then sustaining step Safety change necessitates the two-way action of simultaneously boosting injury prevention skills along with cultural support for incorporating and applying these higher-level methods.

Here’s another example of how two-way action propels lifting above complacency and around resistance: Spread Safety leadership throughout an organization by simultaneously building and stimulating multi-level leadership—top-down and bottom-up. I've written many articles on the bottom-up power of training “peer” change agents to first impart new skills, coach on how to apply these, and then ongoingly reinforce this with co-workers. This approach has generated eyebrow-raising boosts in Safety performance and culture within many companies in a variety of sectors throughout the world.

Further, when it comes to activating and developing top-down Safety proponents, many companies have room to improve. I'm referring to structuring in committed senior-level leadership for each meaningful Safety initiative. To begin, select and nurture Safety "Champions" (or "Sponsors") by first formally inviting, then designating certain leaders with position power to be stewards of Safety intervention/cultural change. Think of these as the point persons who spearhead communications and administer an overall implementation. They might be identified as the driver and the protector.

Start by deciding on—and then communicating—the role of a Safety Sponsor/Champion. Ideally, this is the highest level manager/Executive who is interested in: acting as the point person/spokesperson /face of the initiative within the company, encouraging other managers/executives to support the process of moving toward higher levels of Safety performance and culture, serving as a support for peer change agents and Safety professionals to get through logistical issues (e.g., scheduling and securing rooms, needed equipment; and administrative services), meeting with peer change agents to help boost their performance and keep them on track, or being interviewed for internal messaging.

What to Look For in a Safety Sponsor/Champion
Here's what to initially look for in a Safety Sponsor/Champion. They ideally should:

  • Be committed to continuous improvement
  • Be willing to be a focal point for significant and lasting improvements in Safety performance and culture
  • Have a position to direct support staff to arrange logistics, rooms, schedules, audio-visual equipment, photocopying of evaluation masters, etc.
  • Have credibility with employees as well as with senior management and mid-management
  • Have available time to meet monthly (for about an hour) with peer catalysts, as well as being receptive to between-scheduled meetings for check-in
  • Be able to present effectively to senior executives and to employee leadership groups/bargaining units
  • Have a position ideally in an operations area, not a Safety professional. This in order to weave Safety firmly into the company's overall culture. I assume here that those with designated Safety leadership positions also will be committed to the proposed initiative; if not, consider making needed changes to get these aboard first.

Obviously, recruiting an executive as a Champion requires getting them excited and aboard. There are many ways to do this, but begin by looking for a senior manager who shows initial interest in the initiative. (It could be that this is because of their seeing organizational payback or because they have a personal connection to the initiative. For example, I'm thinking of one Executive Champion who became activated to drive slip/trip/fall prevention after his aged mother fell on black ice and broke a hip.) Meet individually with the Executive to thank her or him for their Safety leadership and to ask if they might be willing to further be identified with the initiative; that this usually won't require a large amount of time.

Where Championing Safety Works Best
We've found that there invariably are managers in every company who show initial interest. (BTW—with multiple plants, it's helpful to have a manager in each site serve as a local Champion/Sponsor.)

Championing Safety works best when leaders from senior management and worker levels simultaneously come together to spearhead change. This is a proven and practical structure for significantly elevating injury prevention performance and culture.

Remember that Queen song, "We Are The Champions"? Also remember that the best champions develop and nurture other Safety champions, up and down and all other ways.

This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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