Safety & Health Bulletin
Managers Undo Corporate Safety
May 30, 2014
Safety strategy should begin at the corporate
level. The leaders of the organization should direct the formulation
of an overarching safety strategy that guides activities and
determines the fit of each program and initiative. Everything done
at the site level should be held against the standard of that
When the site fails to follow the strategy, there
should be decisive and timely corrective action. When there is not,
the strategy fails to be executed and the results of this failure
often manifest themselves as poor safety performance or, even worse,
as catastrophic events.
Sadly, most organizations don’t have a true
safety strategy (or have a flawed or incomplete one). However,
having a safety strategy at the corporate level is not a guarantee
that it will affect performance. Many strategies that start at the
top of the organization end there as well.
The effectiveness of corporate strategy at the
site level is dependent on acceptance and support from site
management. Many site managers are safety champions and welcome a
strategy to guide their efforts, but some are ineffective in their
efforts, and some deliberately deviate from the strategy. Site
managers who fail to execute corporate safety strategy usually do so
in one of three ways: delegation, subjugation or diversion.
It is not unusual for site managers to delegate
safety to a safety professional or specialist. In many cases, the
safety manager follows corporate strategy and spares the site
manager many of the details of doing so. However, when managers
completely divorce themselves from the safety efforts, the safety
professional can become a scapegoat rather than a resource. Managers
can make it difficult or impossible for safety specialists to do
their job and then blame them when results are not acceptable.
When site managers have had a long tenure with
several rotations of safety professionals, and the site still is not
performing well in safety, the problem often is the manager and not
the safety personnel. Managers who do not take a personal role in
safety send a message to the whole organization that safety is not
what the organization truly is about.
Delegating safety is not nearly as bad as
subjugating it. Even safety-conscious managers can send the message
that other priorities are more important. The simple volume of
communication about other priorities versus safety can reinforce
But some managers don’t stop there. They
personally and directly send the message that safety must take a
backseat to more important matters. If site managers don’t get what
they want from site safety professionals, they can pick and choose
until they find a safety person they can control and keep out of the
way of their true priorities. When workers exercise their rights to
stop jobs for safety, site managers have the power to write them up
for insubordination, assign them dirty jobs or deny them certain
Site managers also can subjugate safety in more
subtle ways, such as reducing or cutting off funding for safety
functions or equipment, making it difficult to attend safety
meetings, ignoring safety suggestions or reducing all safety
training to redundant computer-based modules. Some managers change
the subject when safety is brought up, or voice the opinion that all
accidents are the fault of careless workers and don’t require
managers’ attention except to fire the guilty.
When managers send the message that safety is not
important to them, workers receive the message. Once this message is
received, all other messages promoting safety seem disingenuous.
Interviews with workers quickly can identify problems with managers
and safety, yet many organizations don’t utilize such interviews as
a part of regular safety audits.
Some managers successfully avoid blame for safety
by diverting attention to other aspects of business at which they
excel. Companies often are hesitant to risk losing high producers
who simply aren’t excellent at every aspect of business. A manager
who can increase efficiencies and profits but can’t seem to get a
handle on safety often is given another chance, or even a waiver.
If accountability for corporate safety strategy
execution goes through production management hierarchy, this often
is the case. Both the site manager and his boss have multiple
responsibilities and accountabilities. If the corporate strategy
does not contain strong language establishing safety as a value or
priority equal to or greater than productivity, it is easy to excuse
poor performance in safety as long as there is strong performance in
the organization’s focus areas.
Blaming workers for accidents is another form of
diversion. If accident investigations automatically place blame on
individuals and ignore contributory causes and influences, this
often is a sign of such diversion. Some site managers even will
blame the corporate strategy for their failure even if they are not
following it. Managers who seek to fix the blame rather than fixing
the problems often are managers who are failing at safety or trying
to shift the focus to avoid culpability themselves.
Another form of diversion is when managers simply
get busy or overwhelmed with other priorities and fail to give
safety enough attention to succeed. Mechanical problems, poor
engineering or design, labor issues or inefficient processes can
dominate managers’ attention. Safety, along with a host of other
priorities, can be put on the back burner when immediate and urgent
issues get out of control.
A good safety strategy at the corporate level should include
channels of accountability and methods of early detection when the
strategy is not being followed. Site managers who fail to follow the
strategy for any reason quickly need to be identified and their
course corrected. Most site managers are great assets to their
organizations and execute the safety strategy with precision and
creativity. However, those few site managers who are part of the
problem rather than the solution are in a position to do irreparable
damage to the workers and reputations of their organizations.