Building a Culture of Safety Leadership

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Leading by example

  1. Learn how to build a culture of safety leadership, first by building  trust between employees and management.
  2. Next clearly define roles and expectations for management and teammates.
  3. Third, review your training programs for up-to-date information and accuracy, and include follow up.
  4. Examine your internal structure to ensure any safety complaints don’t have to go through multiple channels.

The principle of building a culture of safety leadership can be applied to any industry and organization, regardless of the work being performed. The phrase was first coined by champion driver and safety advocate Jackie Stewart who stated, “It takes leadership to improve safety,” after many decades of accidents. Modern races employ various safety measures to mitigate these risks, but a century ago when the sport was first emerging, the topic of safety was not highly regarded. Stewart’s words, though unpopular at the time, proved prophetic. Building a culture of safety leadership starts at the top.


Building a Culture of Safety Leadership

Culture is the defining characteristics of an organization. When one of those characteristics is safety, untold benefits can be reaped. Fewer workplace injuries and accidents mean less time and money are lost dealing with the aftermath, but there are many other intangible benefits. Safe employees are set up for success, and as the adage goes, “success breeds success.” Safe employees can enjoy increased morale, produce more profitable work output and provide exceptional service to customers.

Safe employees are also more likely to feel satisfied in their work, improving retention. And any combination of these factors stand to improve an organization’s overall reputation, which is often a determining factor in an organization’s success.

Related: How employers can help manage workplace stress

While these benefits are all designed to benefit employees, as Jackie Stewart noted, building a culture of safety leadership does not begin at the employee level, but at the top, with management. To build safety culture effectively, leadership must address the following items.


A recent Gallup article offered the following quotation on leadership and trust:

As Peter Drucker wrote in his 1992 classic Managing for the Future, “Trust is the conviction that the leader means what he says. It is a belief in something very old-fashioned, called ‘integrity.’ A leader’s actions and a leader’s professed beliefs must be congruent, or at least compatible.”

If trust is lacking between management and employees, it may indicate a perceived lack of integrity in management. Overcoming such a perception can be challenging, as management must determine whether their personal beliefs on integrity align with the organization, and address discrepancies accordingly. If employee trust has already been lost, it can be much more difficult to regain. Before any conversations about safety can occur, an honest assessment of an organization’s trust dynamic must be assessed and addressed.

Related: Employers, is your safety and health program up to par?

Roles and Responsibilities

If an organization is struggling with management-employee trust, it may be due to lack of clearly defined expectations. It can be difficult to take ownership of “doing the right thing” when no one’s sure what the “right thing” looks like. When employee and managerial expectations don’t align, the organization is in for a world of problems, including costly accidents and avoidable injuries. To work effectively towards safety, every team member must be on the same page regarding what’s expected of them. They must also trust each other to perform and deliver on those standards.

Training Programs

Safety training can be the biggest help, or the biggest hindrance, to building a culture of safety leadership. When done correctly, training leaves employees empowered, informed and engaged in putting their skills into practice safely. When done incorrectly, training can leave employees resentful, apathetic, or worst of all, more confused than when they started. This usually happens when trainings are prescribed with little oversight, follow-up or intention.

When trainings are viewed as simply another box to be checked to achieve compliance, the potential for enacting positive organizational change is robbed. Training must be intentional and consistent. It must also develop and grow alongside an organization as processes, workflows and technologies change. Simply conducting a “one size fits all” program year after year is often not enough to build a true safety culture. Trainings must be engaging, informative and relevant to truly make a positive impact.

Related: Top 13 preventable workplace injuries [infographic]

Internal Structures

It’s important to have protocols and procedures in place to create channels and workflows where employees can exercise safety effectively. However, striking the right balance can sometimes be tricky. Too much structure can stifle innovation, bogging employees down in unnecessary red tape and paperwork. Too little structure can leave employees feeling unsure of who to talk to and what to do when safety concerns arise. This element of building a culture of safety leadership is not something that will happen overnight. But taking stock of your current structures can bring great insight on where more clarity is needed…and where less is more.

Safety Personnel

All leaders must buy in to the idea of building a culture of safety leadership, but the most forward-facing is the designated safety officer. Regardless of whether safety is that person’s full-time responsibility or an addition to other duties, the safety officer often makes the biggest difference to how the staff perceives organizational safety efforts. As with other leadership, the key to this position is trust. A safety officer should not exist solely to point out infractions and find fault with employees. He or she should work collaboratively with staff to discover areas for improvement and positive growth.

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This article was originally published in Arrowhead Tribal’s blog. It has been updated and modified to better fit the needs of Arrowhead’s producers and their clients.