Where do leaders learn about safety?

Why is it, after many years of discussion around the benefits of leading indicators over book-841171__340lagging, most companies (including major, international, industry-leading ones) still have injury rates as their headline safety metrics? Why, after investigation of numerous catastrophic accidents highlighting the inadequacies of procedures, do most businesses continue to focus on prediction, rather than resilience? And why, after years of feedback from workers about over-the-top bureaucracy, do we continue to add a new instruction after every investigation?

As I’ve pointed out before, there seems to be a major disconnect between safety theory and operational practice. Bridging this gap requires significant input and support from leadership but where do leaders find out about progressive thinking in safety? How do they know that there are alternative approaches out there, that maybe the way they’ve been doing things needs to change? How can we bridge this gap with any sort of speed if the crucial figure of the leader is in the dark?

I received an email this week that said (paraphrasing) – “I’m currently reading your book. If I could, I’d give a copy to the CEO of every business.” Which prompted me to think about getting the message to leaders (and hence this blog). All the direct reader feedback I have had (with one exception) has been from safety people. The magazines and journals that reviewed it are safety-themed. When I get asked to speak at conferences, they are safety conferences, not general business conferences. Yet, when I wrote the book, it was with a broader audience in mind than just safety managers.

Of course, there are occasional exceptions, but while the safety industry itself talks a lot about leadership, there doesn’t seem to be the same aspect of the leadership industry talking about safety. If we want widespread uptake of good new ideas, the message surely must be in the leaders’ regular sources of information – those places they go routinely.

To see if this was the case, I embarked on an embarrassingly unscientific review of leadership websites and blogs – from well-known, global names in leadership and industry publications to blogs by individuals that feature heavily in ‘Top 10 best leadership blog’ lists. On one site I did a basic search of the 750+ articles. ‘People’ returned 65 pages of searches, ‘team’ 24 and ‘quality’ 12. ‘Safety’ provided three items (not pages). On LinkedIn I found 133 posts on the leadership learning blog, not one of which had a safety theme. Nor did any of the on-line courses for C-suite executives. A ‘mood of the boardroom’ report covering major concerns of executives and directors in a national newspaper did not have safety among the things to think about for the following year.

Even when there were articles, they tended to be very run of the mill, ‘focus on safety, it’s important because . . .’ pieces, with the occasional exception such as a Harvard Business Review article on asbestos management within Anglo American. Rarely, if at all, was there anything particularly thoughtful or challenging.

Based on my high school economics lessons, there should be a supply of interesting articles if there is demand for it. So, either leaders are desperate for good quality, thoughtful pieces on safety leadership but none of the usual channels provide them. Or, there is no demand from leaders and all the rhetoric about the importance of safety is just lip service. Neither is a particularly positive outcome, but I’m going to be optimistic and suggest it is the former.

Good safety performance is not achieved in isolation from the rest of the business. There is a general trend in business towards host leadership, greater engagement, a focus on the employee experience, increased collaboration and creativity. All this is undermined by an old-fashioned rules and compliance approach to safety that treats workers as thoughtless, careless and responsible for their own demise when accidents happen. Leaders who are unaware of the current thinking in safety are unknowingly applying a handbrake to their business success.

The ongoing separation of safety from the broader business is detrimental to both. So, come on LinkedIn, HBR, Forbes and others, help us bring safety routinely into business discourse by raising its profile across the leadership milieu with some challenging and provocative articles.


5 thoughts on “Where do leaders learn about safety?

  1. Craig, I echo your experience but have learnt that many of the leadership articles include safety even if the term is not used. It is up to people like us to point out that presence so that we make the argument that safety is always part of business eve if the business doesn’t see the reality itself.

    Several times I have contacted the authors and asked whether they include safety in their leadership talks and articles. Mostly they say it does but that it doesn’t always resonate with their audience. Those who say safety wasn’t include respond that there is no reason safety doesn’t fit but that they have never thought of it.

    There is a new group of younger safety professionals in Australia who promote themselves as business advisers, who have focused on understanding the business imperatives, concepts and jargon. They are really talking about how good safety management contributes to profitability whilst acknowledging that one failure could threaten the whole business. Those professionals are gaining business sector legitimacy and influence by not trading on fear – the major strategy used by older professionals like myself but that was also the default setting for OHS regulators for many years.


    • Thanks Kevin. Trading on fear is an apt description. In my book I talk about the missed opportunities to engage the wider business and understand the links between safety and performance. It’s good to hear that the future of the profession may be thinking in those terms, too.


  2. Thank you for a great article Craig.

    This topic is critical and one I have pondered many times, usually when faced with leaders who don’t consider safety as a core business issue (which is far more often than I would like).

    I find safety is commonly viewed by leaders as a separate business function, with accountability for understanding and managing safety usually [almost completely] designated to a H&S manager (or similar). Best case scenario is usually that leaders are requesting some safety ‘data’ (e.g. facts and figures, usually lagging ones) from that person.

    However, with manages possessing little genuine interest, and often even less professional competency in the area of safety, the data they request is not necessarily valid, meaningful, or even responded to in an appropriate manner. Incident rates are simply included in management reports to tick the safety box, rather than actually provide any useful intelligence or inform important business decisions. As you rightly point out – this is STILL happening in some of the largest and most reputable organisations!

    It has occurred to me in the past that this exclusion of safety form the remit of leaders, stems from their education (including ongoing professional development). H&S simply isn’t included in their education or regular sources of information. Sadly, I was somewhat reassured that your ’embarrassingly unscientific review’ found that was in fact the case.

    So long as this deficit exists, leaders will continue to sideline safety for ‘more important’ issues. They need to be educated about the intrinsic links between good safety practices and good business practices. H&S professionals already understand the importance of integrating safety with normal business operations (or better yet, considering safety an integral component of business, not separate at at all from normal work), but business leaders seem to be largely unaware of this concept.

    This gap needs to actively and urgently be addressed by those best positioned to influence the actions of leaders, such as the government, educators, industry and leadership bodies, and leadership, management and business publications. Unfortunately, many of those groups are as ‘in the dark’ as the leaders themselves right now. I think the fist step needs to be educating them, so that a new safety leadership paradigm can start to form.


    • Thanks for your comment, Tania.
      I agree that these are good places to start. I also think, though, that safety people need to look at ourselves as well – making sure we’re adding value to the broader business conversation as well. There is a happy midway point between the two, I think


      • I totally agree.

        In the same way leaders need to broaden their knowledge and skills to include H&S, we as H&S professionals, need to ensure we develop an understanding of the wider business context and how H&S fits within it.

        To effectively integrate H&S, the H&S professional’s scope of understanding needs to be wide. We need to speak the business language of leaders, whilst concurrently grasping the operational intricacies front-line workers deal with day-to-day – because H&S is interwoven with most every aspect of an organisation, top to bottom.

        This is where I see the role of the H&S professional evolving, albeit very slowly. We are shifting from being technical experts who develop systems and procedures and disseminate instructions to the workforce (enforcing constraints and restrictions), to being facilitators, focused on extracting valuable knowledge and insight from the workforce and empowering them to utilise their capabilities to create safety in practice (removing impediments to enable success).

        So if H&S people can learn more about business, and business people can learn more about H&S – that’s got to be pretty powerful!


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