Show ‘em how it’s done

Show ‘em how it’s done

What you do speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you say - Emerson

This important and highly observant quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson says a great deal about the importance of the behaviour of company leaders in establishing the safety culture of the company. So if you’re an owner, manager or supervisor please read on and we’ll explore the significance that leadership behaviour and conversations can have on your company’s safety success.

Policy statements need action
We all have one. In our company’s OHS policy we’ve signed off our commitment statement to the safety of the people who work for us. It probably says something like, “The safety of our employees is of primary concern to us in all of our operations.” It may even say something like, “Here at XYZ Construction, safety is a priority”. Whatever it says, it actually doesn’t mean very much without the behaviours and actions that we take to support these statements. Saying safety is important isn’t nearly as important as actually demonstrating that safety is important. In fact, you can do much to undo these wonderful policy statements with a simple action to demonstrate that in fact safety isn’t as important as it appears in your policy manual.

Match words with deeds
To be taken seriously as a leader your words and deeds need to match. If you want your employees working safely then you need to demonstrate that their safety is valued by you through your actions. For example, when you’re on the project site and you see one of your workers or contractors working safely, take the small amount of time it takes to acknowledge the job as being “well done”. When humans do great work we like to be recognized by others!

I do a lot of public speaking. In both large and small sessions, when my presentation is over there is nothing more personally satisfying to me than to hear the crowd applauding. Even better for me is when a participant makes a personal comment about how they enjoyed the presentation. People usually don’t take the time out of their busy lives to tell me a lie. If they stay to talk to me after the session about their experience, I know that it is important to them. If it wasn’t, they would have left! This feedback not only feels good but makes me want to do it again. I believe we all appreciate a sincere kind word about our performance be it at a public event or just a simple job well done comment from the boss or a coworker. Making people proud of working safely increases the chances that they will do it again.

A good job is defined as…
As leaders we need to define for our employees what makes a good job. Certainly “on time and under budget” gets reinforced in most organizations. We’re all clear that in any job, wasting time and money is NOT the way to do the job. Companies that are successful in making their places of work safe and healthy are those companies that have made it clear to their employees and contractors that the way we know we’ve done a good job is that it’s a quality job done safely on time and within budget. These are simply expressed and reinforced by management.  

Once the criteria for a good job are defined we then need to communicate it to the people who are doing the work. We do this through meetings, phone calls, reports and one-on-one conversations. You’re already having these interchanges with your people so if we include “safety” in our discussions we’ll increase the chances that we’ll get safety as an outcome. Case-in-point: Ask an employee, ‘When can you have that project completed?’ This obviously points the employee in a direction of calculating the time it will take to do the things they have to do. This could include “safety”. We certainly hope it includes safety. Ask the question a different way and our employees are then guided to ensure safety is part of the solution. ‘When can you get this project be safely completed?’ is a much different question and one that forces the employee to think through the project knowing that to do the job well, it must be done safely.

We haven’t given up production, we haven’t established a competition between safety and production, we’ve made them mutually dependent on each other.

Safety by walking around
Leaders “on the ground” talking to folks who are actually doing the work? What a concept! When communicating what’s important to you, there is nothing more effective than to say it in a face-to-face conversation with your company’s employees. Here are a few conversation openers that will get your employees thinking about their safety:

What can you do personally to make your work here safer?
Is there something that we can do together to help make it safer here?
Is there something that you and the people you work with can do together to make it safer here?

All you need to do then is listen and help them do the things they tell you are important to their safety. To discuss safety effectively you have to make it personal. Just saying, ‘Someone should do something about this,’ gets us nowhere and you know as well as I that very elusive “someone” never seems to get around to it!
If you do try some of these activities and conversations with your staff there is a great chance that you’ll more effectively lead your safety efforts. Most importantly if you really mean that safety is important then your employees will actually SEE that safety is important by what you do.

Alan D. Quilley CRSP is the author of “The Emperor Has No Hard Hat — Achieving REAL Safety Results.” and the President of Safety Results Ltd. a Sherwood Park Alberta OH&S Consulting Company. You can reach him at: