Workplace safety practices must have active leadership

Published: February 10, 2008

A welder is working on an assembly line and notices a potential safety hazard. He reports it to his supervisor and waits for action yet nothing is done. What does the worker think? Perhaps management does not care, even though the company says it promotes workplace health and safety.

Effective leaders monitor their team’s situation and provide feedback and recognition to all workers, says Dalhousie University Professor David Stuewe. Effective leadership explores safety concerns with staff – this includes plant managers and front-line supervisors. They all require mechanisms to record and report to all staff on a firm’s steps to address risks that have been identified and priorized for removal or mitigation in a timely manner.

Stuewe delivered this message to more than 140 people who attended the Institute for Work & Health’s annual Alf Nachemson Memorial Lecture held in October. The lecture is named in honour of Dr. Alf Nachemson, an orthopedic surgeon and researcher who was a founding member of the Institute’s Scientific Advisory Committee and co-editor of the Institute-based Cochrane Back Review Group. He passed away in 2006.

It is a leader’s job to create and maintain workplace cultures that promote safety, says Stuewe. It is normal that most people assume that 99 per cent of the time everything’s going to be okay and that they particularly will be okay – so slight risks are taken. However, those slight risks, when condoned by leaders, can create an unsafe culture. To change this situation it is vital that the leader help the men and women on their team to consider the ramifications of unsafe work practices.

Although there are “no simple answers” that address safety, Stuewe explained it is effective leadership that ties systems and people together. Lasting solutions must be composed of three key ingredients: personal wellness, organizational wellness (culture) and the physical work environment (materials and processes). What we know is, if you don’t address all of these factors, you will not have an effective system, he said. The research he has been involved in indicated that the use of appropriate feedback and recognition by leaders, to address safety climate issues, can lead to improvements in the workplace culture.

Stuewe, a former CEO of Nova Scotia’s Workers’ Compensation Board, discussed being a part of a research team that implemented an intervention involving safety leadership training at a large company. As part of this project, the firm’s safety climate was measured to help plant leaders understand how their individual and firm-level approach to safety was viewed by employees. This information, provided confidentially by employees, was used in workshops and coaching sessions with leaders.

A senior manager at the company explains safety before and after the intervention. Six to eight months ago (before the intervention), no one talked about safety, he says. We did safety talks every Monday and we thought it was the right thing to do, that was our concept of safety....We provided PPD (personal protection devices), but we didn’t enforce it. When we look at safety now (post intervention), we talk about what can go wrong if you don’t have the safety equipment or if you don’t use it. I think the fact that we now talk more about safety makes a difference. After the intervention, the departments that were involved had a 40 per cent drop in injury rates.

Stuewe noted there is often a trade-off between productivity and safety. Safety precautions usually have modest and immediate costs (such as slower pace and extra effort). Unsafe behaviours offer immediate rewards; safe behaviour offers delayed and uncertain rewards, he says. Leaders can reverse the payoff structure of short-term versus long-term rewards. Leaders must accept that safety is a long-term investment and they must take action and be responsible for it.

Recently Stuewe has started to look at other ways to improve safety climate. What does he see as the next steps? We want to administer the safety climate survey in more Canadian workplaces and confirm the relationship between safety climate and the frequency of workplace injury. Plus, we need to develop cost-effective means to administer these surveys to support those leaders who wish to receive information on the safety climate in their workplace, he said.