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Leadership Adjustments That Improve Safe Work Practices

Posted by Andrew Watters on

In 2016, safe work practices would have saved a 16-year-old work-experience student from a traumatic construction site injury. Instead, that student suffered a broken neck and a life of ongoing pain and impairment. The accident stole life options and immeasurable pleasures from him. Three contractors, including the lead contractor, paid a combined $444,000 in fines - and then they got on with their lives. The boy was less fortunate. This tragedy was an easily preventable accident, and effective leadership could have seen it avoided.

If you arrived here without taking in the rest of the series, this article is the third of five. We introduced five focus areas back in June 2020. That article was called "Your Safety Is Only As Strong As Your Weakest WHS Procedure". That foundation article overviewed three years of blogging and identified five valuable themes that improve safe work practice. Those themes were mindset, method, leadership, currency and affordability. 

We’ll look at three too-often missed aspects of effective leadership and safe work practices. 

  1. Integrity.
  2. Purpose with Care.
  3. Advocacy with Humility.

Integrity is Core to Safe Work Practices 

Truthfulness and sticking by a moral (or value) code are integral to your safety efforts. Working by these virtues will bank goodwill with your crew. Working contrary to them will erode morale, motivation, trust, profits and productivity. 

It’s essential to walk the walk! 

People will typically obey an employer when being watched - but they'll only do the Dxbbasics. They won’t:

  • Do any of the extras. 
  • Try to lift standards. 
  • Perform duties they know are not checked, or
  • Speak up when they see corners being cut on safety.

Motivated and appreciative workers are different, and these workers often have supervisors that have earned their trust and respect.

Even simple actions make a difference. Integrity standards have plummeted during recent decades, so it doesn't take a lot to stand out. 

Consider these integrity action steps. 

  1. Make an intentional effort to improve in an area of personal and professional integrity, especially in your WHS approaches.
  2. Review your WHS Management Plans from an integrity perspective. Deliberately and meticulously look through your policies, procedures and resources. Consider viewing our WHS Management Plans for some inspiration (more on this below).
  3. Be gentle but rigorous with yourself. As a human being, you are flawed. We all are - so be gentle. We're all prone to deceiving ourselves and seeking comfort rather than quality - so be rigorous here also.
  4. If you catch yourself telling a 'lie-of-convenience’, own up to it and apologise - even to subordinates. More than likely, they'll blink in amazement at such a rare act of integrity, and you'll gain immeasurable respect (besides, they probably knew you lied anyway). 
  5. If you realise you just passed the buck, ask for it back. Build leadership credit with a sincere, “No, I’ll do that. That’s my job”. Then watch the credits accumulate. 

Those last two suggestions are especially powerful. Winston Churchill said, "In the course of my life, I have often had to eat my words, and I must confess that I have always found it a wholesome diet." There are few actions that so effectively position for integrity and humility. 

This is leadership in business in a way that few practice it. 

Purpose with Care Motivates Safe Work Practices 

'Purpose with care' speaks to a leadership style that is deliberate, goal-oriented and worker-oriented. It's a blend of traditional professionalism and charitable purpose.

When you pursue this style of leadership, workers will likely perceive you as deliberate and safety-focused because you genuinely care. The last four words are important.

For too many workers and leaders, safe work practices are motivated by avoiding fines or minimising obstructions to productivity. Instead, when safety is about people, and workers know it, safe work practices improve. 

Remember the 16-year-old with the now-broken neck? He stepped off a ladder into an uncovered void. Was covering that space an inconvenience or a moral imperative? Could it also have been an exercise of care for a fellow worker and their family? Had there been more purposeful intent and higher-purpose values in play, there'd likely be a healthy and happy 19-year-old walking around today. 

When we lead with integrity, purposeful professionalism and charitable intent, we reap the benefits. 

Consider these simple actions that demonstrate purpose and care:

  1. Work out what ‘care’ looks like for you and your workplace. Every leader is different, as is every project and workspace. 
  2. Put yourself in their shoes, in their role, and kick-start an imaginative thinking session. What does care look like to them, when demonstrated by you?
  3. Encourage 360-degree communication and feedback. You’re still the boss, but nothing conveys respect and care for your workers like being open to their feedback (and even correction).
  4. Talking about this topic with peers to produce good ideas and establish priorities. 
  5. Don’t be dry. When you verbalise appreciation, engage your own emotions, and you just might stir some of theirs. When passions are engaged, constructive change often follows.
  6. Regularly review and reinforce your most important safe work practices.
  7. Reward worker compliance with these safe behaviours.

Advocacy and Humility Empower Safe Work Practice 

When we advocate, we plead on behalf of or argue for, a person, cause or belief. We might also call it 'going into bat for' someone or something. Can we, and should we, 'go into bat for' the people and processes that contribute to effective WHS safety practices? Absolutely! 

When you fight for safe work practices, you simultaneously fight for people - and if you do it right, they see and appreciate you advocating for them and their welfare.

Where does humility fit into this? Well, humility acknowledges the truth and sees things as they truly are. Humility sees the actions of individuals within your WHS systems with precise accuracy. Humility sees what is going on and responds with honesty and commitment.

Some believe that humility is self-degrading. It isn't. Humility is not thinking poorly of yourself; rather, it is walking in awareness of truth. This is especially important when it comes to safe work practices for which you are responsible. Psychotherapist, David Richo describes it this way: Humility is "accepting reality with no attempt to outsmart it". I like that definition.

When it comes to safety, humility recognises that we are ALL vulnerable to being lazy. We are all tempted at times to cut corners when tired or frustrated. If we accept and verbalise that fact, we keep it real; give people the freedom to be honest with themselves and others, and we thereby encourage proactive safety practices. When we’re thinking safety, we should aspire to think with scalpel-like precision. Humility helps this. 

When you combine advocacy and humility into your leadership style, you unleash a WHS super-power. We never see perfection in our safe work practices, but if we are working together and diligently toward this end, we can see remarkable results. 

A 90 Minute Review of Safe Work Leadership Practices 

The exercise that follows is a little outside of the box, but we believe it will be time extremely well spent, especially if done with a peer. It might also be more enjoyable with company.

Using our comprehensive WHS Management System, this activity will allow you to precisely review your work, health and safety leadership across five areas, including:

  • Global documents
  • Training and supervision
  • Risk management
  • Incident and injury management
  • Records, reviews and improvement

If you print off the WHSMS topics and inclusions list that you find on our website, you'll have approximately seven pages of a single column list, as well as a resource on which you can record your thoughts compellingly and effectively. You'll find 109 individual items, in 35 groupings.

If you give each grouping 3 minutes, or each item one minute, you'd need more than 90 minutes but less than two hours. Of course, if you identify issues that need more attention, you'll need more time - but that will be a win because you'll have identified one or more problems that need attention before a 16-year-old kid falls through a void.

We suggest you:

  1. Print off the topics and inclusions list.
  2. With coffee, list and pen in hand, give each item deliberate thought. When you see items you can skip over, do so.
  3. Maintain leadership and people focus. This is an exercise in traditional professionalism with a charitable purpose.

For each item or grouping, ask yourself:

  1. How can we demonstrate more integrity?
  2. How can we demonstrate purpose with care?
  3. How can we advocate, with humility, for the safety of our workers?

Once finished, you’ll have fuel and focus to lead. 

Leaders are made, not born, so we hope you enjoy the journey. See where you're weak, strengthen what you can and do all with integrity, purpose, care, advocacy and humility. You’ll never go backwards on an exercise like this.

If you have questions about any of the issues discussed here, our WHS Management System, or safe work practices in general, make contact. You can call 1800 304 336, or you can Request a Callback by using the form online. As we’ve said elsewhere, this is a serious business for serious people, and we’re serious about supporting you!


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