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5 Ways to Work With Leadership for Better Risk Management

Oct 10, 2019
Two safety professional men in suits talking in front of a teal background

It makes good business sense to invest time and resources in risk management.

Executives who understand this are more likely to see improvements in safety, employee retention and profitability. However, many need help getting up to speed on this critical and ongoing process.

“The ideal safety and risk management culture is one where there is total, measurable engagement in safety and risk management activities at all organizational levels,” says Sam Gualardo, M.A., CSP, president of National Safety Consultants. “This includes senior leaders, managers, supervisors and workers.”

As an occupational safety and health (OSH) professional, you can do a few things to help your organization work toward this optimal culture. First, you can explore ways to better communicate the value of safety and health from a business perspective. Second, you can use your relationship-building skills to connect with executives on a personal level. Third, you can set a good example for others by living your values.

But the thing you can’t and shouldn’t try to do, Gualardo says, is hold yourself solely responsible for negative outcomes that result from cultural problems.

“Safety can only be managed effectively if there is total ownership and engagement of the line management organization from the top to the bottom,” he continues. “Leadership owns the house, and they need to understand and guide what goes on inside it.”

That’s why Gualardo created the LeadSAFE safety and risk management method more than 20 years ago.

“Throughout much of my career, my assignments dealt with safety culture change — and that wasn’t always easy,” he says. “So I created tools to help myself, and I wanted to share them with others.”

As implemented by Gualardo and his organization, LeadSAFE provides the why as well as the how to organizational leaders who want to improve safety and health but aren’t sure where to start. However, internal stakeholders will often provide the who, what, where and when of risk management. That, he says, is where you come in as a safety professional.

Ready to use your influence and technical expertise to make your workplace safer and healthier? Here are five LeadSAFE-inspired ways to start.

1. Engage Leadership in the Risk Management Process From the Beginning

Before you begin implementing a risk management process, it’s important to take a few steps back and assess the systems your organization already has in place. What are the strengths and weaknesses of your safety culture?

“Typically, one of the weaknesses that comes up in a safety climate survey is leadership engagement,” Gualardo says.

That’s why it’s important to communicate with executives before, during and after you attempt to make any systemic changes to your safety program. That may happen naturally as a result of your company’s budget approval process. But either way, you’ll want to go beyond bottom-line conversations and speak honestly with leaders about how they can best support your initiatives.

“The best-case scenario is when OSH professionals are viewed as advisors and given unobstructed access to the senior leadership team,” Gualardo continues.

2. Hold All Team Members Accountable for Safety Performance

To establish an effective risk management system, you need to have a plan for accountability. How will you give everyone in your organization — from the top to the bottom — a personal stake in its safety processes and outcomes?

“Employee compensation could be tied to leading and trailing indicators of safety performance,” Gualardo says. “There are numerous ways to directly tie these metrics to performance reviews and bonus systems as well.”

One exercise in particular can help executives understand the ways they are accountable for their part in mitigating risk, Gualardo adds.

“It’s called a safety tour, but leadership’s focus isn’t really on safety while they’re doing it,” he says. “It’s on assessing why safety deviations occur and what they can do to address those problems.”

3. Set Measurable Goals Around Employee Involvement in Safety

Gualardo believes that involvement is best assessed with a combination of quantitative and qualitative metrics. His method includes a “safety flight plan” — essentially an implementation guide with benchmarks that an organization can use to track the development of its safety culture.

“It helps to assess how often employees are performing certain safety actions and how well they are performing them,” he says. “For example, a flight plan might say, ‘a first-line supervisor must conduct x number of safety lockdowns each day,’ or, ‘a senior leader must conduct x number of safety tours per quarter.’”

Safety leadership teams can easily establish their own cultural flight plans, he continues, as long as they focus on realistic, measurable goals — and getting people physically involved.

“Keeping safety top-of-mind is important, but you really want to get people out of their chairs.”

4. Create Redundancy Throughout Your Safety Processes

Creating redundancy, or deliberately including backups that aren’t always required, is a key part of implementing a safety or risk management system.

“There’s a reason why an airplane has a right engine and a left engine,” Gualardo says, “and the airplane’s pilot has a co-pilot.”

Redundancy can help protect workers on the job, but it has an added benefit that safety teams often overlook: It could give executives a reason to pay attention.

“Try making leadership part of the redundancy equation,” he explains. “For instance, if you decide you need three people with different areas of expertise to review your risk assessment, consider asking one person from the C-suite.”

5. Help Your Organization Focus on Long-Term Risks

It’s impossible to take a risk-based approach to safety if you spend the majority of your time putting out fires. That’s why Gualardo says every organization’s safety team needs to help keep leadership focused on the big picture.

“Some companies are wildly out of focus in terms of their approach to managing safety and risk,” he continues. “They have knee-jerk reactions to immediate problems, and it prevents them from thinking about the future.”

Consider sitting down with your leadership and reinforcing the value of risk management with these three focus questions:

  1. What are our most frequently unresolved safety issues that need to be resolved?
  2. Which of our long-term safety issues have the greatest severity potential?
  3. Which of our employees need additional training or development to better support our safety initiatives?

“Help operational leaders understand that these things can be measured objectively through culture and risk assessments,” Gualardo says. “If that point is clear, it will elevate the importance of safety and health.”

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