“Leadership is a choice, not a position.” ~Stephen Covey
There is a lot of truth in this statement and it applies directly to workplace safety. Injury prevention strategies are all dependent upon organizational cultures that support safety efforts at all levels. Strong and consistent leadership is vital and it doesn't have to come from those in authority positions or a specific leadership job title. We've all heard that “everyone is a safety officer.” This can only occur when strong leaders believe it and take action to ensure it happens.
Don't ever assume that an organization that is compliant with OSHA standards is doing enough to keep people safe. Remember that following the federal or state safety regulations is the minimum required by the law. Doing the minimum is enough to pass the exam, but the grade becomes a D. If an organization wants a better grade, say an A or B, a focus on culture is necessary. That focus will naturally lead to leadership discussions. Significant improvement could lead to safer workplaces and a much better passing grade.
If an OSHA citation is issued to an organization the first response is to correct the issue. This is certainly appropriate, but the next question should be “why did this violation exist?” When addressing that core question, it is often found that there has been a failure in leadership. People knew about the hazard but walked by it every day. Supervisors knew the problem existed, but were too focused on production to correct it. Or no one was trained in that specific hazard and no one bothered to become trained or send someone else to training. If everyone is a safety officer the hazard shouldn't exist in the first place. Clearly no one chose to become a leader and eliminate the hazard before it became an OSHA citation.
Also keep in mind that the OSHA standards are not all encompassing and certainly do not cover all situations in all industries. Something as common as falling on ice in the parking lot or a cumulative trauma disorder from an office ergonomic hazard are not even covered by the standards. Employers are required to provide a safe and healthful workplace, but OSHA shouldn't be the first place to look for preventive measures. Look to your supervisors, your middle managers, and the executive staff to lead by example. “Do as I say and not as I do” is not an effective safety strategy.
Open lines of communication can make a huge difference in the workplace. The best safety idea might come from a newly hired person who has experience elsewhere. If he or she doesn't have a method to communicate ideas, such as a safety committee, suggestion box, or sincere supervisor the best idea in the world could go unheard. Again, this culture of open communication is established and maintained by strong leaders.
People are the most valuable asset of most organizations and their safety and health are on the top of their list of needs. A safe environment is found near the bottom of Maslow's Hierarchy, so clearly it is very important in our lives. Leaders are responsible for establishing those safe environments, providing the proper training and equipment, and for fostering the communication necessary to build a safe organization. Remember, leadership is a choice. Make the right choice and protect yourself and those who work around you.
Randy Klatt, WCP, MEMIC, has more than 30 years of experience working in industries where safety is critical to success. He spent six years in emergency medicine, 14 years as an active-duty military pilot, and three years as a commercial airline pilot. Randy is the former president of Maine Safety Professionals, Inc., a safety consulting service — with a specialty in the transportation and construction industries — for businesses in Maine since 2003. For over ten years he taught aviation safety at a major university. Randy is an authorized instructor in the OSHA Construction and General Industry Outreach Training Programs.
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