12 Key Steps to Leading People Safely: A CEO’s Roadmap

Most CEOs understand the importance of safety, but demands they face may force safety to the back burner. This must never be allowed.

December 03, 2018

I speak to thousands of company executives and safety professionals about safety leadership, and this is the comment I frequently hear: “I get it, but my CEO does not.”

I believe most CEOs understand the importance of safety, but the multitude of demands they face may force safety to the back burner. CEOs leading high-consequence businesses must never allow this to happen.

There is no “secret ingredient” for successful safety leadership. The skills required are the same needed for top-notch organizational and operational leadership: attention to detail, focused execution, standardized and disciplined processes, an understanding of roles, meaningful metrics, personal accountability and alignment around the group mission and vision.

Your role must be to lead consistently with safety in mind; you will be tested repeatedly on your commitment to safety as a core value.

12 Focal Points for Safety Leaders

  1. This is not a grassroots affair. A culture of positive safety must be leadership-driven but employee-owned. Waiting for a healthy safety culture to “bubble up” will not work. Safety starts with you, and you cannot delegate it.
  2. A great safety culture is a journey, not a destination. You will never achieve total safety. The benefit to the organization is achieved in the journey itself. Along the way, continually challenge “status quo” thinking and learn from incidents and close calls.
  3. Safety is not a priority; it is a non-negotiable core value. Priorities change, values do not. Nothing can compete for safety. We’ve all heard: “You can’t be safe and productive at the same time, so what do you want? To get the job done or for us to be safe?” This is a false premise. If you want to have a messed-up operation, just experience unplanned down time, litigation and poor employee morale resulting from a bad injury.
  4. Zero is the only acceptable goal. 99.9% is a pretty good performance standard in most business arenas, but not when it comes to safety. If you accept one preventable accident, you might as well accept 100. Zero is a mindset. You may never achieve it, but without a mindset of zero, you may never achieve excellence.
  5. No big-capital expenditures are needed. You set an example by thinking and acting in a new way. As an executive, you cast an enormous shadow. Your team will follow your actions, not your words. Employees can easily distinguish lip service from a passionate commitment to safety.
  6. Just because you are compliant does not mean you are safe. Regulations, rules and laws are the baseline. Great safety requires commitment to exceed the minimum (and often inadequate) criteria established by law or regulation.
  7. Leaders should focus on execution, pay attention to detail and not overcomplicate. Execute the basics, and the battle is nearly won. Be sure to have fun with safety. Employees respond well to incentives, recognition and healthy competition. Take your front lines with you!
  8. Focus on at-risk behaviors, not conditions. Addressing behavior, not exclusively deficiencies in equipment or conditions, can prevent the majority of casualties.
  9. Safety success in the past doesn’t guarantee safety success in the future. There must be a leadership obsession with continuous improvement or the organization risks stagnation. Please remember that good can be bad. When things are going well, we may let our guard down. That is when complacency creeps in.
  10. Standard Operating Procedures must be meaningful, understandable and followed. The average American reads at a fifth- or sixth-grade level, yet our SOPs may be written at a high school or collegiate level. Employees cannot be held accountable for failing to follow SOPs they do not understand.
  11. Make safety personal. Create compelling, emotional reasons for your team to own safety. Speaking only in terms of numbers does not work. Make it real by focusing on the people involved in accidents and their families and how they are impacted.
  12. Your organization has a role, usually a huge role, when something goes wrong. Your company can cause safety failures. Some examples include employees developing workarounds instead of following procedure, the organization not learning from prior events, management not knowing what is driving safety performance and the organization using incorrect metrics to gauge safety. Many companies are excellent at pointing fingers and assessing blame – usually targeting the person at the point where the problem occurred. They fire or discipline the offender, then move on without determining root causes and how to prevent the problem in the future.

No matter what we say or do to align our company with the understanding that safety is a core, non-negotiable value, front line employees must be committed. If employees fail to adopt safety as an ongoing commitment, it won’t take long for the holes in the armor to show up. People who cannot lead or operate safely and who do not buy into your vision must go.

However, if everyone gets behind the mission, you are well on your way to establishing a safety culture that will contribute to bottom-line success.

Safety excellence begins and ends with your leadership. Safety success depends on your ability to stand above the crowd and lead with conviction. Stay the course. Eliminate the noise, and don’t accept defeat.

Brian L. Fielkow

Brian L. Fielkow is CEO of Houston based Jetco Delivery and co-author of Leading People Safely: How to Win on the Business Battlefield. In 2018 Brian received the prestigious NSC Distinguished Service to Safety award.

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