6 Qualities That Make a Safety Leader

Construction worker leading workers formed in a pyramid

A strong safety culture depends on dedicated leaders. They are the people who spearhead the fight for a safer work environment. A good safety leader isn’t shy about bringing concerns to the attention of their superiors or about encouraging others to do their part to keep themselves and others safe.

Many safety leaders are safety professionals and hold titles like safety manager or EHS specialist. But anyone can lead the way when it comes to safety—shift supervisors, productions managers and even frontline workers can all be safety leaders. It’s the following six qualities and not the job title that allows someone to lead the way when it comes to health and safety.

They’re the first to bring attention to safety on the job

Safety leaders are natural stewards of safety. For example, they properly and consistently wear their PPE even if only passing through a working area. They take on an active role in joining boards or committees and lead by example among their workforce. Such actions bring attention to the importance of safety and underline the fact that rules are for everyone to follow, regardless of their position.

Leaders in managerial positions also work to ensure every employee is properly trained and understands how to use their equipment safely. They ensure that the health and safety program receives updates regularly, particularly when it is outdated or lacking. They also strive to hire competent professionals to deliver training and they participate in every training initiative with enthusiasm.

They know safety is really about people

Every company has a collection of rules, regulations and procedures that form the backbone of its safety program. Local, state and federal governments also provide a range of health and safety laws that have to be followed. So it’s understandable why there’s a lot of emphasis on enforcing rules.

But the real goal is to prevent employees from getting hurt, which means you can’t just give them a big, fat rulebook and expect them to comply. You have to help them comply and develop safe work habits beyond compliance with influence, education and coaching. Strong safety leaders know that safety is about engaging and educating people and that there’s no better way to achieve compliance than by focusing on engaging workers and strengthening their personal safety skills. Because even the most well-intentioned safety regulation is only as effective as the people who adhere to it.

They care about safety 24/7

Safety leaders understand that caring for their workers’ personal health and safety does not end when their shift finishes. They encourage employees to use personal safety skills in all aspects of their lives, even when out with their families or relaxing at home. They want workers to remain watchful and aware at all times because they’re more likely to get hurt outside of the workplace can affect the company and its performance.

When at work, safety leaders stay alert and always look for ways to improve worker safety. By sharing this attitude with their team, they increase communication about health and safety and encourage others to maintain the same vigilance.

They recognize that human factors contribute to incidents

Health and safety leaders understand that an employee’s state of mind greatly influences whether or not they follow protocol in a given moment. Rushing, fatigue, frustration or complacency are almost always factors in workplace injuries. When safety leaders notice that a worker is exhausted or complacent after long hours spent doing the same task, they may encourage them to take a break, offer assistance or they may assign them a task with less hazardous potential or to disrupt complacency.

Safety leaders also understand how their direction can influence workers’ likelihood of rushing and adjust their communication accordingly. Instead of saying, “We need to get this done today,” they might say, “Because we need to get this done today, I know you’re going to be rushed, will get tired and maybe even frustrated, so let’s take breaks, stick to our procedures, avoid shortcuts and look out for each other so we can all go home to our families safe and sound.”

They communicate

Effective implementation and adherence to safety practices require an open dialog. A safety leader knows that simply rolling out a new program is not going to work unless it’s first discussed with the workers and aligned with their needs.

Safety leaders also use constant communication to strengthen existing safety programs and ensure that safety is always top of mind among the workforce.  Having regular meetings with the workforce and listening to their ideas and worries is a way for safety leaders to figure out which aspects of safety should be addressed next. The meeting could be as simple as delivering a toolbox talk before a new job or at the beginning of the week. Such meetings will also prove to workers that their safety is important.

They never stop learning

One of the hallmarks of any good leader is a drive for continuous personal improvement. Not only do you need to know how to lead effectively, but you also need to understand what to lead with. You can be a great communicator but if you’re not conveying the most important messages then you’re sending people in the wrong direction. Fortunately for safety leaders, there are more ways than ever to brush up on leadership skills and engage with new ideas in the safety industry, including:

  • Getting a mentor. Ask a more experienced person in your organization to show you how they got where they are today. This can provide a new way of thinking and potentially a road map for future career development. There may be external mentorship opportunities as well, such as the Women in Safety Engineering program run by the ASSE.
  • Attending safety conferences. There are few better ways to learn new techniques and discover innovative approaches to major safety challenges than by going to a safety conference—and there’s even one tailored specifically to Safety Leadership.
  • Watch webinars. Plenty of educational webinars are available to safety folks. Most are paid access only, but there are also some great free options too. For example, if you’ve decided to improve your leadership skills on 24/7 safety then Don Wilson’s presentation about off-the-job safety is a really useful free method of learning more about around-the-clock safety.
  • Read magazines. There’s a handful of high-quality publications dedicated to the safety industry. Magazines like Occupational Health and Safety, EHS Today and Safety Decisions all put out thought-provoking articles in online and print formats. There’s no reason not to browse through a safety magazine or two each month in order to stay current.
  • Go beyond the industry for more reading. Leadership isn’t just important to safety—it’s a universal skill and therefore one of the most common topics of business books. Extensive research and clear insight that applies to a vast audience almost guarantees applicability to your role. Check the reviews, pick a few and learn from the experts.

If you’re working to create a strong culture of safety in the workplace, you cannot accomplish it alone or without learning new things. But becoming a strong and dependable leader will help you implement safety programs faster and, eventually, you’ll be successful in getting even the most complacent employees thinking about how they can care for their well-being while on the job.