Safety Leader Dos and Don'ts

  • Whenever possible, attend your company safety meeting, whether it’s in the shop, conference room, training room or on the job site. Monthly meetings are the minimum recommended for a solidly established presence. Consistency is important -- same date and time -- mandatory attendance. If someone skips the meeting, the leader wants a note from their doctor. It had better be a good reason.
  • You don’t have to conduct the actual meeting; your presence alone will convey the message. If you’re not a particularly gifted speaker, a few words of introduction are all that’s needed (“The Boss Hath Spoken”). Now let your safety director or foreman do their part. Your introduction lends leadership credibility to their message. Chime in to support key elements of the agenda.
  • Stay for the entire meeting. Leaving early sends the wrong message.
  • Turn off your cell phone in front of the safety meeting, or at least set it to vibrate. Ask the group to do the same.
  • Look interested. The average employee will generally emulate their boss's behavior. If you are engaged and absorbed in the session, employees will pick up on this. If it’s important enough for the boss to be here, they’ll pay attention. Tell them there’ll be an exam on the material. (The exam starts when they walk out the door to go back to work!)
  • Jazz up your safety meetings. Whenever possible, provide something to eat or drink – even if it’s just bottled water and a donut. This shows that you thought about it in advance and care about the issue. Invite guests and topic experts. Keep a wide perspective.
  • Keep the safety meeting upbeat. It’s not a complaint session; it’s a learning and leading exercise. Sitting through a boring recitation of safety regulatory text is no one’s idea of leadership. Some topics are more suited to a safety training, rather than a general safety meeting; recognize the distinction.
  • Avoid clichés. “Be safe out there” is an overused and meaningless expression. Worse yet: “Safety is everyone’s responsibility.” Trite slogans are the death knell for individual responsibility. The message in that statement is actually that "safety is no one's responsibility." Aim for accountability and personal responsibility with your message.
  • Lead by example – the oldest one in the playbook. Small details can illustrate better than words. When you reach down to pick up a piece of litter in a work area, that sends a clear message to the group. When you ask why a light bulb is burned out or why something doesn’t work, the fact that you even noticed conveys your concern for their immediate work environment. Makes the group think!
  • Have a clear vision of what the organization needs to look like and communicate that vision. Slogans are OK, but not too syrupy. That’s how hard hat stickers were born, most of which are purely decorative. Keep your message out front and vibrant.
  • Be careful about using the words "zero" or "no" in your message – they’re negatives. Positive descriptors are more engaging – examples: "think, act, achieve."
  • Let the group offer their thoughts on a tag line for their program theme.
  • Enable your troops to achieve higher performance and recognize their progress. Help identify and move past obstacles. One way is to "bring your checkbook" to the meeting – sometimes you need to "slap leather" (authorize payment) to show sincerity.
  • Show deep commitment. This is also known as passion for the cause. Ideally you need to make this contagious in a group.
  • Show understanding and compassion, fairness and respect for all levels of employees.
  • Be creative and encourage problem solving among your employees. Make the distinction between risk taking and problem solving. Managers are famous for saying, "We need to think outside the box." The actual mindset often results as: you can THINK outside the box all you want, just don’t ever GO outside the box. Encourage employee suggestions and innovation.
  • Have a sense of humor; it’s a universal language, and shows we’re human. Humor is a great equalizer and puts a room full of people at ease. You don’t need to be a stand-up comic, but keep some levity in the room.
  • Be liberal with praise. People love to be recognized for their efforts and achievements. This is one of the most critical elements – a good leader will be well versed in the details of a group's or individual's achievements. Peer esteem and the group dynamic will heavily benefit with the right dose of recognition.
  • Praise in public; criticize in private. Celebrate major achievements with an appropriate event.
  • “The media is the message.” In other words, sending out an e-mail and expecting your organization to stand on its head over it, is asking for failure. Strategize the most effective ways to introduce a new idea or practice, how to achieve acceptance. Newsletters, banners, message boards, hard hat stickers, paycheck stuffers – there are a lot of ways to keep the message out front.
  • Leaders understand that human behavior is extremely difficult to change, and the greater the change one is asking for, the more difficult it’s going to be. Sometimes a gradual approach is needed; that’s how opinion surveys came into existence.
  • During meetings, ask if there are questions on major topics or issues. Encourage discussion, if not outright debate. Call on folks by name and thank them for their thoughts.
  • Moderate opposing influences between individuals or groups, show fairness and understanding. Be able to withstand criticism.
  • In large organizations, safety leadership should manifest itself in key functional roles all the way across the organization chart (which, incidentally, should be as horizontal as possible). Groom your staff and supervisors to show leadership and take responsibility at their respective levels in the organization and you’ll see the results show up in your safety record.

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: