S.A.F.E.R. Leadership

As a student in the HVAC program of the local community college, Josh was thoroughly trained in health and safety.  In the classroom component of the program he did his WHMIS and First Aide certification and every procedure he was taught emphasized the potential hazards of the work and how to do the job safely.   Like most apprentices, Josh couldn’t wait for the practical component of the course – working with a certified tradesperson he would get a chance to apply the knowledge he worked so hard to get.  On the first day of his apprenticeship he noticed his mentor doing something that he had been taught was unsafe.  Anxious to learn, he asked about it to be told “I know what they teach in school but in the real world you learn to do it this way”.

The problem with safety leadership is that, like the weather, everybody talks about it and nobody does anything.  Even leaders who honestly care about safety and want to see real change in their workplaces are reluctant to change their own behaviors.  But if we want to get different outcomes, we need to do something differently.  In Josh’s case everything that he had been taught about safety is now out the window because the certified trade – the person he wants to become – has told him it’s useless knowledge.

We know that good safety leadership is important to obtaining the safety outcomes we want[1].  We know that when leaders are passive and do not get involved in safety, then employees develop poor safety attitudes and stop engaging in safety behaviors[2].  We even know that leaders have to be “on topic” with safety all the time, being inconsistent also teaches employees that safety is not important.[3]  Perhaps, most importantly, we know that we can teach organizational managers to be more effective safety leaders – and that doing so improves safety outcomes in organizations[4].  We now have a good understanding of precisely what behaviors leaders need to display to achieve positive safety outcomes.

A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to participate in the Fall Leadership Forum hosted by the provincial Workers’ Compensation Board.  Although invited to participate, the organizers made it clear that they did not want me to present my ideas about leadership (a little rude I thought but I let it go).  Rather, they wanted me to listen to the presenters who were all experienced leaders who had achieved remarkable safety improvements in their organization.  My job was to summarize these presentations at the end of the day and to highlight common themes.  It was easily the most productive time I have ever spent in learning about workplace safety.

Although each leader told their story in their own way, and they all came from dramatically different contexts (from fish plants to hospitals to warehouses), I realized that they were all talking about the same things.   We subsequently formulated their ideas in the S.A.F.E.R. model of leadership.[5]  The five themes that the successful leaders all shared pointed to the importance of leaders Speaking about safety, Acting Safely, Focusing on Safety, Engaging others in Safety, and Recognizing safety. For the past couple of years, we have engaged in a series of research studies on the model; assessing whether leaders could be taught the S.A.F.E.R. leadership style and whether doing so would matter to safety.  The short answer to both questions is yes.  In longitudinal and experimental field studies we have been able to show that when we teach leaders to engage in S.A.F.E.R. leadership, employees notice the difference.  Most importantly, in response to change leader behavior, employees increase their own safety attitudes and behaviours.

Now if we can only do something about this weather….

[1] Barling, J., Loughlin, C., & Kelloway, E.K. (2002). Development and test of a model linking safety-specific transformational leadership and occupational safety.  Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 488-496

[2] Kelloway, E.K., Mullen, J., & Francis, L. (2006).  Divergent effects of passive and transformational leadership on safety outcomes.  Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 11(1), 76-86

[3] Mullen, J., Kelloway, E.K., & Teed, M. (2011).  Inconsistent leadership as a predictor of safety behavior.  Work & Stress.25, 41-54

[4] Mullen, J.  & Kelloway, E.K. (2009).  Safety leadership: A longitudinal study of the effects of transformational leadership on safety outcomes.  Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 20, 253-272

[5] Wong, J.H.K., Kelloway, E.K. & Makhan, D.W. (2015).  Safety Leadership: In S.Clarke, T.M. Probst, F. Guldenmund and J. Passmore (Eds).  The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Psychology of Occupational Safety and Workplace Health Handbook. (pp. 83-111) Chichester: Wiley.