Walk the talk

When it comes to influencing workers to behave safely, leaders need to show them how it’s done. Recent studies have shown a direct link between workers’ perception of the priority their leaders place on safety and their attitude towards working safely.

 “If employees believe that the senior managers think safety is important, they tend to behave more safely,” says Mark Fleming, an associate professor with the Department of Psychology at St. Mary’s University in Halifax.

Since the mid-90s Fleming has been conducting research in safety leadership, looking at the practices of supervisors and managers that influence the behaviour of their subordinates.

Workers look to their leaders to set the priority and if they see that safety is not part of the priority, they tend to view it as less important as well, Fleming says.

“The basic framework that we’re using is that when you are a worker, you’ve got lots of different priorities (such as) production demands, quality demands. And nobody is saying that safety is not important, it’s just that it’s relative to other priorities,” he says.

Management sets the priorities and if all leaders talk about are production and achieving production targets, then workers assume that is what’s important and everything else, including health and safety, are irrelevant.

Because safety tends to be intermittent by nature, coming up only when an incident happens, managers need to be more aggressive in pushing the issue of safety to the workforce.

One way of being proactive, says Fleming, is by being consistently visible to the employees through regular walks around the floor and talking to employees about safety.

“So instead of being reactive, they are more proactive about the process,” he says.

Fleming was among a group of psychology professors at St. Mary’s University who founded the CN Centre for Occupational Health and Safety in Halifax, a CN Rail-funded research organization focused on studies that identify best practices for creating safe and healthy workplaces.

Psychology being his field of expertise, Fleming says much of the issues associated with workplace safety have more to do with how workers behave and think, than the mechanical devices and safeguards in place to protect workers.

A recent high-profile example was the case against Transpave Inc., the first company convicted and sentenced under the Bill C-45 amendments to the Criminal Code. A young Transpave employee died after getting crushed by heavy machinery. Investigators later found the company allowed the worker to operate the machinery despite a deactivated safety mechanism.

This kind of tragic story is almost too familiar in many workplace incidents.

“When I was just starting to do some graduate work, I was at a presentation about a big oil and gas explosion off the North Sea which killed 167 people. As I was listening to the causes of that (incident) it became very obvious that this happened because people didn’t do what they were supposed to do. All the engineering systems in the world can’t protect people in that setting. That is fundamentally a psychological issue, not an engineering issue,” Fleming explains.

This is where leadership comes in. When management makes a commitment to workplace safety, it is important to understand why people do the things they do, then use that knowledge to guide them in making better decisions, he says.

Safety over production
Petro-Canada is one of those companies that put value on workers’ input in achieving safety excellence.

In fact, employee engagement is one of seven key success factors for attaining its Zero Harm philosophy, says Greta Raymond, vice-president for environment, safety and social responsibility for the Calgary-based oil and gas firm.

“Zero Harm is our philosophy that means we believe all work-related injuries and illnesses are foreseeable and preventable,” Raymond says.

Leadership visibility is also a vital component of Zero Harm’s success. It is demonstrating to employees that their leaders are spending time out on the floor, concerning themselves about safety, and not sitting in their offices thinking about budgets and production, Raymond says.

There are a few ways leaders can demonstrate the importance of safety to employees.

When supervisors and managers tell their staff that safety is as important or more important than production, they have to ensure that they are spending equal amounts of time talking about safety as they do discussing production with workers, Raymond suggests.

If one aspect of work is unsafe or poses a risk to worker safety, the supervisor or manager should be able to make the decision of stepping back and thinking things through even if it means slowing down production.

“That’s very powerful when (workers) actually see leaders making that choice,” Raymond says. When workers raise issues about safety, their leaders need to listen and follow through, she adds.

Petro-Canada looks to its leaders as the foremost proponents of safety culture. Part of instituting the Zero Harm culture across the organization, leaders undergo a full-day course that details the company’s expectations of their leaders as Zero Harm advocates, through role playing and case studies.

Since its creation in 2003, Petro-Canada’s Zero Harm initiative has resulted in huge reductions in its total recordable injury rate, from 1.54 in 2003 to .75 in 2008. The total recordable injury rate is the number of events or injuries that require medical treatment per 200,000 hours worked, both by employees and contractors.

“We really have changed the culture of the organization,” Raymond says.
(Next: Safety from the top)

From the top
Direct influence on employees’ behaviour towards safety typically comes from frontline supervisors and managers, rather than the senior executives, says St. Mary’s University’s Fleming. That’s because these leaders have a more direct relationship with the workers than the senior level officers.

To what extent then do senior executives influence employee behaviours?

Fleming suspects there isn’t a lot of direct impact. “It seems to be more of an indirect thing. It seems that the senior leader’s behaviour influences employee behaviour through their subordinates.”

Fleming admits, however, that it has been difficult in the past to conclusively measure and determine the link between senior executives and frontline employees when it comes to influencing safety behaviours.

There are typically only a few senior executives in an organization that it’s difficult to draw conclusive findings on those. Conducting research on this area would require a large number of organizations under study, he says.

“But what I think is going on is a two-stage process: I think the senior leaders set the priorities for their direct reports – the managers. Then those managers influence the people who report to them, so it’s sort of a cascade thing,” Fleming explains.

No matter the extent of the influence, however, Petro-Canada looks to its senior executive team as primary proponents of a safety culture.

Company leaders, from the supervisors to the vice-presidents, all have to undertake a training called, Leaders’ Role in Creating the Zero Harm Culture, says Raymond.

“The top executives, whenever they talk to employees, whether its through written materials or otherwise, they always talk about safety,” she says.

During what’s called a Safety Stand-down, Petro-Canada’s senior executives travel to various work sites and take the opportunity to talk directly to the employees, Raymond says.

“They pull the people off their jobs and sit them down in the lunch room, while the local leaders leave the room and employees get to talk about safety to the very top management and how things are going. What could be improved? What’s on their mind?”

Different challenges
Senior leaders also have different sets of challenges when promoting workplace safety, says Trefor Munn-Venn, associate director, national security and
public safety at the Conference Board of Canada.

“The CEO drives the activity as it relates to the interaction with the board of directors,” says Munn-Venn. “If you want to go through a health and safety transformation that spreads across the entire organization and transforms your relationships, you need to have the board buy into this as well.”

The Conference Board of Canada acts as the secretariat for the CEO Health and Safety Leadership Charter. Founded in 2005, the charter prescribes a series of commitments that member CEOs voluntarily choose to make.

From the initial 50 members, the charter has grown to more than 250 CEO signatories across the country.

As the “representative of the values of the organization”, the CEO Leadership Charter maintains that the CEO’s role as safety leaders goes beyond just setting the policies for health and safety, but ensuring their actions are consistent with what they tell their employees.

“It is one thing to say, ‘we believe in heath and safety and therefore we have established these positions and these people will make sure that those things are going to happen,’” Munn-Venn says. “But if the CEO will not wear the hard hat or the safety boots in areas they are required, that sends a message to other staff that it’s required for some and not for others.”

The CEOs also have the unique challenge of finding ways to integrate elements of health and safety into all aspects of the organization. This includes making sure that job descriptions have a health and safety component and that health and safety are regular agenda items throughout the organization, Munn-Venn says.

Because many of these challenges are unique to the CEO role, these top leaders look to other CEOs within and outside of their industries for best practices. The CEO Health and Safety Leadership Charter provides a venue for these executives to come together and share their experiences and learn from each other.