Lifelong Learning @ UNB
UNB College of Extended Learning

The Leadership Imperative – Why Safety Practitioners Need Formalized Leadership

Author: Glyn Jones, CRSP

Posted on Feb 4, 2021

Category: Professional Development

The leadership imperative in front of us today is to develop a mechanism, process and curriculum to help organizations develop good safety leaders. The leadership imperative, as I see it, is driven by the reality that in the last decade the occupational fatality rate is not falling. This plain fact above all creates the imperative that we need to do something different. In spite of the huge increase in the number of safety professionals in Canadian workplaces and the massive resources applied to building and implementing occupational health and safety management systems, five workers die every workday. After a period of intense study of this issue, I have concluded what is missing is leadership.

A safety leader is someone who influences good decisions and positive behavior. Some safety leaders are born but most are made. Safety leadership skills can be developed. We all need access to strong and formalized safety leadership development. Somebody needs to step up and make the offer, and we need to respond with a willingness to participate. That somebody could be in the university community, it could be the CSSE, or it could be someone else.

Safety leadership has nothing to do with hierarchical leadership; that is, you don’t need to be the Director of Safety, the Manager of Safety or even the boss to lead. Many of us confuse management and leadership; you manage processes but you lead people. Safety leadership is about creating influence such that good decision-making and positive behaviours become the norm. Safety leadership is about creating influence such that good decision-making and positive behaviours become habit. Safety leadership is simply defined as doing something that you see needs to get done even though you will not get credit for it, but you are willing to do it anyway. Leadership is hard! Remember: leadership is a journey or a practice, and not a destination.

The development of safety leadership, in my view, requires two things: a shift from enforcement thinking to engagement thinking, and the design and implementation of a process that allows for building trust between employees and the leadership team such that employee engagement grows. Many of our great educators on the topic of leadership – people like Covey, Carnegie and Blanchard – all point us towards communicating to building trust with an end goal of increased employee engagement.

Steps to Become More Effective Safety Leaders

There are a number of specific and measurable things you can do to move away from enforcement thinking and towards engagement thinking. As a start, I offer five things we can all work on as we develop ourselves to become more effective safety leaders.

Take time to focus on what is good and right

The lagging indicators of your safety record are a measure of what is bad and wrong. It is easy to see the holes in the cheese. Part of building a strong team is to recognize there is in fact a piece of cheese. A strong coach and good mentor will know how to focus on the good, and builds towards and articulates a better future.

Get to be known as a person first and solution provider second

Leave your title and the specific linkage to the safety department out of the conversation. The safety leadership opportunity is not so much a technical issue that requires technical expertise as it is a simple problem of people’s inability to reconcile the apparent inconsistency and mixed messaging of “get’r done”, and “do it safely”. Your job as a safety leader is to reach out and “touch” people, connect with people, and help them problem solve!

Make the linkage to the good that comes from managing safely

and stop the stories of death, destruction and gore associated with serious workplace incidents. Scaring people straight doesn’t work. Making the psychological connection between a good company, providing good jobs in the community, managing your environmental footprint, and ensuring employees go home each night – it is a powerful message. It is an appealing vision and future state worth working towards together.

Stop quoting the legislation and the company rules, and start talking to people

The legislation is important and rules need to be followed but the psychological appeal can be stronger than the need to just meet the minimums as quoted in the code. Safety leadership is about people. You need to be able to share your thoughts, ideas, and feelings, and engage in a way that boosts self-esteem. Safety leadership is a "people business". If you don’t like people and don’t want to engage people, you should get out of the safety business.

Try being yourself

and try being more interesting as a person than the safety stereotype. Pocket protectors and rule mongers are a bad image and we need to find a real way to connect with employees and with what is important to them. The most interesting people are the ones who take time to learn about others. Tell a compelling story about yourself, the company and your vision for the future where workers always go home safely. Take time to take time with the employees and they are more likely to connect with you, the safety management system and the company.

If you are in a safety position now or are thinking about it in the future, part of your development needs to be in developing your leadership skills. The hard skills form the foundation of safety but the soft skills allow you to be effective with implementation. We need a safety community with stronger leadership skills. To paraphrase Harry S. Truman:

"When there is no leadership the system stands still or regresses. Progress occurs when courageous, skilled leaders seize the opportunity to make change for the better."

Leadership is hard but the return on investment will be significant for you in your career and your capacity to make a real difference in reducing workplace incidents and injury. Remember too that leadership is a practice because it offers near endless potential for self-improvement and mastery. Get to work on developing your safety leadership skills. Look for a formalized leadership program in your community and get involved. Keep your eyes open for the opportunity; it could be at your local university community, it could be at CSSE, or it could be somewhere else. Do the work. Make the investment. Make a difference.

Glyn is a Regional Vice-President of Alberta, Northwest Territories and Nunavut. He is partner at EHS Partnerships Ltd. in Calgary and is a consulting occupational health and safety professional with 30 years of experience. He can be reached at