Leadership in Safety


Leadership in safety

By the late George Robotham

Early in my OHS career I made a major error of judgement while working for a safety consultancy organisation. The General Manager attempted to discipline me in a team meeting. My immediate manager intervened and took full responsibility for my mistake. I later thanked the manager who explained he did what he did to transmit his expectations to various people.

  1. The General Manager – “No-one stuffs with my people, discipline of my people is my responsibility and it will only be used when all other avenues have been explored and it will always be positive and done in private.”
  2. You – “You were feeling down and I wanted to let you know you were still a valued member of my team”
  3. Other team members – “I am in charge of this outfit and no-one else interferes with my team. Making mistakes that we learn from is perfectly acceptable”

It has taken me 30 years and reading extensively about leadership to realise the significance of what my manager did that day-Leaders send out messages, often subtly, about what they value and expect.

For about a year I worked with an American General Manager Operations (A graduate of Westpoint Military Academy )who could best be described as a humble yet inspiring leader who had an overriding commitment to safety. This individual would turn up at operating sites in the middle of the night to see how safety was being managed. He would jump on a haul truck and go with the operator while the truck was loaded, the manager would question the operators about safety and tell them that he expected safety to be their top priority. He would go for a walk though the workshop for awhile and observe how work was being done. He would then call the supervisor and crew together to explain where his expectations were not being met. This was done in a quiet, soft, Southern drawl but no one doubted the need for change.

This manager let his subordinates know he expected nothing less than 100% commitment to safety, those who did not comply were not around long. Word quickly got around about the managers safety expectations, single-handily he raised the profile of safety in the organisation.

I assisted this General Manager Operations in a series of safety audits. His was a simple approach. He selected 10 things his wide experience told him could lead to fatalities and audited their status. At the audit closing meeting he reported on the status of the items and made it clear when he came back for his follow up audit all items would be in place, those who had not embraced the changes, regardless of level, would have no future in the organisation.

Transmit your expectations, thank the people who comply and follow up with those that do not.

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