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Why Delegation and Empowerment Matter in Safety

Leaders determining how to delegate work

No one can go it alone in safety. Even if you work in a full-time EHS role at a very small company, it’s still impossible for you to look over everyone’s shoulder every second of the day. At some point, you need to get some help from others. And the best way to do that is by delegation and empowerment.

Delegating safety

Delegating safety responsibilities is a relatively understudied topic. Fortunately, delegating in other areas is much better understood. For instance, a Gallop study of 143 of America’s top-growing companies found that executives who effectively delegated responsibilities grew 112% more than companies run by CEOs who delegated poorly.

In an article in Safety Decisions, Tim Page-Bottorff, a member of the ASSP Board of Directors, notes that this can pay off in a couple of ways: “The first benefit is that you will have more eyes looking out for safety issues, and with more observations being made there will be more safety improvement opportunities. The second is that your deputies are much less likely to break the safety laws that they’re helping to protect.”

The reason for this is simple: you can accomplish a lot more when a lot of hands pitch in. It works for business, and it can work for safety too. It can be as straightforward as tasking frontline leaders to be extra vigilant about looking out for safety issues.

The key to delegating effectively is to identify folks who are capable of helping out—such as supervisors with strong communication skills and a good rapport with their team. From there, you can work to build their capacity by, say, helping them understand the nuances of safety issues you’d like them to help you shore up. And then communicate with them consistently, offering support and getting feedback as to how things are going. In this way, delegation is both a method of safety engagement as well as a way to get more done.

Safety empowerment

Safety columnist Ray Prest has been making the case for more personal empowerment in safety for years. As he sees it, safety training places a big emphasis on transferring knowledge to workers.

This is understandable, but it’s come at the detriment of giving workers the practice and other skills necessary to put that knowledge into practice. In short, safety training doesn’t place enough emphasis on empowering workers to look out for themselves.

Here’s how Prest puts it in his article “The Case for a Safety-Coaching Model”:

“Every safety manager’s dream is for frontline workers to be able to accurately assess a potentially dangerous situation in the workplace as it develops and then react accordingly; to have basic skills like wearing PPE built up to habit strength; and to understand the principles of safe behavior and then have them acted on no matter what gets thrown at them during their shift.

For that dream to become a reality, you have to think like a coach, not a teacher. A teacher lectures workers on the various reasons a hard hat is important. A coach makes workers practice putting their hard hat on a thousand times until it becomes second nature—and publicly recognizes people who are doing it properly to reinforce the behavior.”

There are a few ingredients that reliably combine to create empowered workers:

  •   sufficient skills and ability to recognize hazards and human factors
  •   the right to respond to fluctuating risk
  •   support to reinforce skills and the right to respond

One of the techniques that SafeStart uses with great success is focusing on building personal awareness and helping workers develop the ability to read and respond to risks in real time. Because every day the hazards are slightly different—even if it’s only because workers show up a little more tired or frustrated—and so people need the ability to adjust their own actions accordingly.

The end result of all this work is that workers are much more likely to take proactive steps to keep themselves safe. This can often result in fewer common injuries like sprains and strains, as well as reduced risk of serious injuries and fatalities.

This is an excerpt of  7 Essential Soft Skills For Hard Workplace Safety Problems, a guide for safety professionals that explores the soft skills that can directly influence workplace safety engagement.

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