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Essential Elements of Safety Leadership

We hear the word "leadership" used in all walks of life, but how does this apply to our organization?

Human nature/group dynamics suggest and experience proves that the average employee actually does want some leadership from their organization. Employees typically want to be motivated, inspired and charged up, particularly when it involves their safety. It is important to distinguish leadership from dictatorial imperatives such as "my way or the highway," though. While the leadership process is not exactly a democracy, it needs to allow for employee input and feedback.

Good managers are not always good safety leaders. Like anything else, there is a lot of mediocrity around that passes as "doing a good job." Managers are the people who make sure the lights are on, there’s gas in the tank, and bills are paid.

Leaders are generally big-picture, long-range, strategic thinkers. Leaders will inspire, motivate, energize and communicate their vision to the group.

Leaders should be accessible to all levels of employees and they should welcome interaction. Gripe sessions and gab fests notwithstanding, direct dialog throughout the organization is highly valuable.

In the construction and service industries, where employees are largely self-directed, the goal of safety leadership is to motivate an employee to do the right thing when they’re on their own and faced with a choice of actions. After they've made the right choice, you want them to be able to navigate a situation to the best possible outcome. This applies not only to safety, but also to quality, efficiency and customer service. Short of placing your picture on the dashboard of the company truck, you need to find ways to connect and make an enduring impression on the average employee.

In the safety business, mediocrity won’t cut it. Particularly when jobs involve substantial risk, such as working with heavy machinery, working at heights, using powerful tools. The more severe the hazard, the more critical the controls need to be.

Demonstrating good leadership traits is actually not all that difficult and there are as many different leadership styles as there are people. There’s no single, magical leadership bullet. The most effective leadership traits will reflect the actual needs of the worksite and employees. In other words, don’t show on the job site up in a three piece suit when your guys are wearing coveralls.

About the author: John J. Meola, CSP, ARM is a Construction Safety Specialist with the Louis Berger Group. He is based in Richmond, Va., and recently completed an assignment at the Bethesda Naval Hospital / Walter Reed National Military Medical Center construction project. Contact: