Attributes That Make Great Safety Leaders

When we think of leadership, there are many characteristics that come to mind. These include things like integrity, self-awareness, communication, caring, empathy and many others. Leaders have the power to make decisions and allocate resources in order to achieve business objectives. Ultimately it is the leader that determines the culture of the organization and establishes the norms by which behaviors are understood to be acceptable or unacceptable within the organization.

Leadership isn’t always that complicated. Safety leadership can be as simple as “If you see something, say something.” Think about it. You’re walking through the plant and see an oil leak from a machine starting to enter the walkway. Or a co-worker not wearing required safety eye protection. Or maybe you’ve just witnessed a near-miss incident – a pedestrian nearly clipped by a forklift whose operator was wearing headphones, listening to music. Or in today’s COVID environment, workers not maintaining appropriate social distancing or removing their face coverings.

Your decision to say something about the hazard, near miss or injury or illness precursor you saw is an act of leadership. A leader can be staff or line. The focus is not on title, but on your ability to influence others in your organization. By alerting others to a hazard, by speaking up, you’re influencing their safety. You are protecting their safety and increasing their safety awareness.

Think of the leadership attributes that go into “If you see something, say something.”

  • You are demonstrating situational awareness. Leaders need to be situationally aware. You observed an abnormal situation, a deviation, and became immediately aware of the danger, the risk. You are simply paying attention to the environment around you.
  • You are being self-reflective. “How can I be most effective in sharing what I am seeing? How can I engage the team for solutions to what I see? How can I set an example that they will follow in their own behaviors?”
  • You’re being thoughtful and supportive. You’re showing that you care, genuinely care. By seeing a hazard and alerting others to it, you are supporting their safety. You are speaking up because you care about the safety of others.
  • You’re being fair. You are not placing blame or making judgments. You know no one is perfect. We’re all human, and sometimes we forget (to wear PPE), we walk by the oil spill and assume someone else will see it and do something.
  • You’re slowing down, taking the time to let others know the hazard you’ve identified. Time is a precious commodity at all levels of an organization. Supervisors and frontline operators are pressed to make quotas, deadlines, get the product out the door and to customers.
  • You’re taking the initiative by speaking up when you see a hazard. You’re taking action when you could simply remain silent and let the moment pass. Leaders are action-oriented, not passive onlookers.
  • You’re communicating, speaking up, with clarity, accuracy and precision. You are using critical thinking skills to express, to describe what you see. Effective leaders make good use of critical thinking skills. Leaders can be at loss without them.

“If you see something, say something,” is enhanced by becoming visually literate. Being visually literate moves leaders from just looking to observing, and really seeing the details of what is happening. You have the ability to recognize small details, defects, deviations and dangers that can be easily overlooked. Next, you analyze and interpret the meaning of what you see. The oil leak can result in a slip and fall, or even worse. Not wearing eye protection can lead to vision damage, even blindness. The forklift operator running on autopilot can become situationally unaware and bump, bruise or run over a pedestrian; or damage plant property.

As leaders become more visually literate and see in greater detail and draw more meaningful interpretations from what they are seeing, there is one more step. What are you going to do about it? This is the last in three key questions in visual literacy training: What do you see? What does it mean? What do you do about it?

Leadership is essential today at every level of an organization. It cannot be the exclusive domain of the top floor or the corner office. Successful, sustainable, and safe organizations have actively engaged employees in every department, on every floor, on every shift. Engaged employees put their leadership responsibility first. They see, describe and analyze a hazard that needs to be fixed, a condition that needs to be controlled. They listen, ask questions, and interact with nearby workers. As all good leaders intuit, engaged employees know they don’t have all the answers. The most effective way to solve problems is not a solo effort.

Trained and engaged employees look for hazards, take time to make careful observations, and see in detail with clarity and precision. Employing leadership traits, they don’t rush to judgment or conclusions. They take the time to describe what they see, analyze and interpret its meaning (what is the probability and severity of risk, for example), and then communicate what they have learned and assessed so mitigating actions can be taken.

Leaders do this using self-reflection. They know (through visual literacy training) that their observations (what do you see) and assessments (what does it mean) are subject to various personal biases that act as blinders or filters, distorting the reality of what they have encountered. Leaders reflect, see their biases or prejudices for what they are, and put them aside. Leaders of all stripes and rank are fair, thoughtful and sensitive to their own fallibility. The most effective leaders check their egos at the door, or leave them at home. Ego, arrogance, hubris all interfere with the ability to see clearly and assess objectively.

Communication is integral to the visual literacy methodology. Your time, observations, reasoning and evaluation of a hazard (physical, mechanical, behavioral, systemic or procedural) is for naught if you do not share what you’ve learned. Problems, dangers, defects or deviations cannot be corrected if you keep the information to yourself. You don’t lead by operating in a vacuum or a silo. At any level of an organization, you lead by acquiring information (through observations, audits, hazard hunts, one-on-one “safety contact” conversations, using behavior-based checklists and much more) and disseminating what you learn. What follows is collaboration; teamwork; and planning, prioritizing and problem-solving if needed.

Leadership is a set of traits. It is not a position. It’s not where you are placed on the org chart. Anyone can possess leadership characteristics and put them to use to protect themselves, their co-workers, and improve safety in the workplace. Your position, your title, your job description does not define or diminish your ability to be a leader. It can be as basic as, “If you see something, say something.”



To learn more about Visual Literacy in leadership applications, please download our white paper “Leading Safety By Seeing Safety: A Look At Safety Leadership Through New Eyes.”

Dave Johnson

Dave Johnson has been a magazine chief editor, writer, reporter, researcher, analyst, and public speaker in the safety industry for over 40 years. He co-wrote a book on patient safety in healthcare, interviewing physicians, nurses and patient safety advocates; as well as edited books on organizational psychology, behavioral psychology, safety for supervisors, and humanistic behaviorism. Dave is now principal of Dave Johnson’s Writing Shop and develops thought leadership pieces on behalf of COVE.


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