Safety leadership: more than a manager: leaders are needed to avoid organizational complacency | 2021-09-26

Editor’s Note: Achieving and maintaining an injury-free workplace requires strong leadership. In this monthly column, experts from global consulting firm DEKRA share their take on what executives need to know to guide their organizations to safety excellence.

In 2008, the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth, Georgia, exploded, killing 14 people. The results of the Chemical Safety Board’s investigation were surprising. Since 1967, senior leaders have known about the risk of explosion inherent in sugar, but have failed to act on it.

This story is all too familiar. Over the past two years, similar catastrophic incidents have been reported involving bulk nitrogen used in food processing, ammonium nitrate for agricultural purposes and chemicals used for water purification.

Managers can influence others to make the right decisions and win as a team. However, a manager is not necessarily a good leader, and a leader is not always a manager of people. Leaders understand that no product or service is worth harming the well-being of workers, first responders, or the community. They should avoid organizational complacency by scaling up and demonstrating key leadership behaviors, including:

Become visibly vulnerable

Nothing kills complacency faster than a vulnerable leader who believes that he or his organization can fail and shares that awareness with others. Visibly vulnerable leaders listen to the concerns of workers. They allocate resources to investigate and track what could be subtle signals of potential disaster. They then ensure that people learn the results and that the organization implements the learnings.

(See Chronic Malaise: A Mindset for Managing Security Risks in the June issue of Safety + Health for more on vulnerable leaders.)

Changing the leadership worldview from “Don’t tell me about problems, give me solutions” to “Tell me more, and we’ll solve this together” takes time. Start by setting the time in each business update meeting to ask what subtle warning signs or risk factors your team has noticed recently. Make your organization a safe place to recognize problems so that you can provide the right resources to help people overcome these challenges.

Set limits to avoid normalization of deviance

The term “deviance normalization” describes when organizations relax their risk acceptance criteria rather than identifying and correcting the underlying causes related to exposure events. Normalization of deviance often starts in one corner of an organization and can spread if left unchecked.

Managers may be good at sharing business goals, but they may fail to set limits on how it should be done. Leaders must have boundaries that they will not allow others to cross when it comes to respect for people, an ethical code of conduct, risk-taking and when a situation changes or introduces an inherent risk that could have an impact. impact on worker well-being, supply chain viability and community.

Formal work processes and a governance structure should be established to help communicate, review and validate expectations. Both are a way for people to report deviance and help manage change with unbiased expertise and management oversight.

Clarify roles and escalation routes

Close-up calls and events can be symptoms of front-line supervisors and managers feeling pressured into taking a decision-making role to help achieve a business goal. In doing so, they are making a decision that should have been evaluated and communicated to a higher level of the organization.

Senior leaders cannot be expected to know all the technical details, but they should be involved when decisions present a high inherent risk. They should recognize the need to engage scientists, engineers, EHS professionals and other experts to identify risks and potential consequences regarding action and inaction. Leaders need to be comfortable saying “Show me the data” to ensure that bias doesn’t become a factor in their decision.

Finally, front-line staff must exercise operational discipline to follow procedures and escalate when they see, hear, taste, smell or feel anything that is not typical. These situations should be investigated, followed by a structured review and escalation process.

The real reward of investing in these leadership behaviors is influencing each team member to “step in”. Organizations must reframe success not only by the services or products they provide, but also by the conduct of their leaders.

This article represents the views of the author and should not be construed as an endorsement of the National Security Council.

Sarah Eck is the Senior Process Safety Development Engineer for DEKRA North America ( with experience in developing and improving safety programs to reduce catastrophic risk. She is an engineer and certified professional in process safety.

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