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A Leader's Role in Improving Safety Performance

By Delores (Dee) Conway

Audits tell us whether employees are following safety procedures, right? Not necessarily.

A leader's role in improving safety performance at workAudits don’t always tell the whole story. I’ve seen cases where well-trained employees looked good on the audit yet had a troubling number of incidents on the job.

I’ve seen situations where companies have an admirable history of safety practice yet still experience fatalities—and in one case, two-thirds of the deaths occurred in high-risk areas.

How is this happening when their audits looked so good?

What is the disconnect?

I have observed workers saying what the auditors wanted to hear, parroting what they heard in training—because they feared for their jobs and were “fibbing” to avoid trouble. But on the job, workers were not following the safety protocol, not behaving safely. This seemed mystifying, because the safety protocol exists for their benefit, after all. So what was going on?

  • An audit can miss the mark if workers feel honesty could cost their job. When leaders and safety professionals barrage workers with intimidating questions that feel like an interrogation workers think, “If I answer honestly, will my job be at risk?”
  • An audit can focus on small details, but not the overall safety culture
  • An audit may verify required safety factors are in place—but fail to validate that the safety protocol is actually followed

Leaders need to verify + validate

What do I mean by verify + validate?  Here are my definitions:

  • Verify—confirm that safety processes comply with specs: Does everyone have their PPE? Are wheel chocks and safety cones available? Do people who work at heights have safety harnesses available? Are there rules to avoid tripping hazards?
  • Validate—confirm that people are truly following the safety procedures. Validation assesses how people actually behave—what they are doing (or not doing) every day on the job.

Further, validation applies to both leaders and workers:

  • What workers are doing, or not doing, to follow safety protocols
  • What leaders are doing, or not doing, to reinforce safety practices daily

V & V

Verification and validation procedures are used together to confirm that a product, service, or system meets spec and its intended purpose. Both are critical components of a quality management system such as ISO 9000.

Verification assures that requirements, controls, or specs are met. Audits often consist solely of verification against requirements.

Validation assures that field application is really preventing incidents.


The power of dialogue

Instead of safety checklists, leaders should use a behavior-based safety protocol to evaluate true safety performance. In every setting in every industry, there are a “critical few” safety behaviors that can save lives. To discover if these critical-few safety behaviors are happening, engage people in dialogue.

Try these simple steps:

  1. Be authentic to build trust. Show people you care by asking them about their safety, jobs, concerns, and families. Assure them that their responses are confidential. This builds the trust needed to access the truth.
  2. Explain why. Help people understand the “why” behind your questions.
  3. Prep supervisors to ask the right questions. Show them how to engage workers in conversation, how to create dialogue. This can be challenging. Not all supervisors are comfortable with this or want to spend the time. But when supervisors are caring coaches, they gain the confidence of workers.

With trust and understanding in place, you can ask the questions about the critical-few safety behaviors—and expect to hear candid answers: I’m seeing some people not following our hard-hat rule, or our equipment-testing procedure. This is dangerous. Why do you think this is?

I have worked with leaders to transform their audit program into a Coaching Program for Verification+Validation of Safety Behaviors. Supervisors attend working sessions to learn how to listen and how to ask open-ended questions to encourage dialogue. Using these new skills, supervisors quickly gain new rapport with the workforce.

Coaching for high performance

Structuring your safety program questions using ALULA’s DCOM® Model for high performance* is another tool to consider:

Direction: Does everyone clearly understand our safety goal, procedures, and the critical-few safety behaviors?

Competence: Does everyone have the safety knowledge, skills, and capability they need?

Opportunity: Does everyone feel free to follow safety protocols and watch each other’s backs?

Motivation: Does everyone want to perform safely?

When I’ve applied the DCOM method for preparing and asking safety questions, responses received have given leaders real actionable information, helping them realize the safety problem is about more than individuals—it is about the organization’s diligence in creating a genuine “culture of safety.”

Your role in improving safety performance

Safety, competence, verification, and validation typically have been the responsibility of safety or environmental groups and separated from the business context. But today, organizations are more safety-conscious, and safety is now a focus for general managers and senior leaders. Today, safety metrics are often seen as equal in importance to other business metrics.

Take a tip from my own experience: your best safety metrics will come from engaging in candid dialogue with employees.

*DCOM® is a registered servicemark of CLG (dba ALULA).

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Topics: Leadership, Safety