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Don’t be Deceived: Safety Management is NOT Safety Leadership

More often than not, the notion of safety management is used interchangeably with safety leadership; however, a true safety leader understands that there is a distinct difference between the two.

Distinguishing between Safety Management and Safety Leadership

In his whitepaper “Safety Leadership: The Role of the Executive in Leading a Safety Culture,” Sidney Dekker differentiates between the two concepts in six words: “you manage things, you lead people.” This simple statement reflects the key difference between safety management and safety leadership: Safety Management is the system of controls that are put in place to force people to behave in a specific manner, whereas Safety Leadership is the act of implementing programs and obtaining employee buy-in which results in employees naturally changing their behaviors.

In other words, safety management is the protocols or rules that are put in place to stop people from doing unsafe acts at work. Safety leadership, on the other hand, is not a systematic means of control. Rather, “safety leadership is about acknowledging that the work that your people do has evolved to cope with the inevitable hazards, complexities, gaps, trade-offs and dilemmas which your organization (and the nature of their work) helps create.”[1]

Safety leaders don’t merely enforce the safety rules; safety leaders take the time to understand how and why employees make the decisions they do.  Safety leaders take proactive steps to encourage and empower employees.  “Good safety leadership is about putting in place the conditions for your people to do things safely, more than about putting in place the constraints that prevent your people from doing things which are unsafe.” [1]

What Makes a Good Safety Leader?

One of the defining features of a good safety leader is one who defers to expertise when making decisions with regards to health and safety. The question is: how do you do this?

The answer is simple: reach out, listen to and encourage those workers who are “practiced at recognizing risks and anomalies in the operational processes in your organization.” [1]  Deferring to expertise does not mean relying on your own expertise, it means engaging with those frontline workers to understand their operational front-end processes and working together to find a way for your workers to get their jobs done safely. Being a safety leader isn’t about always having the right answer, it’s about recognizing the expertise of others in your organization and combining your knowledge with theirs to find the safe solution.

Having humility is equally important as deferring to expertise.  A good safety leader lets go of his/her ego and appreciates that while they may know every safety regulation, all workplaces are different, which means that the conditions required to improve the safety behavior and culture are also different.  

Getting buy-in from workers requires a safety leader to demonstrate that the health and safety of their workers means much more to them than establishing authority. Showing that you truly care about health and safety can be done by simply listening to your workers’ views and experiences with regards to health and safety, and taking their opinions into account when designing your safety management system.

Acknowledging that you don’t have all the answers and showing a willingness to learn will not only make you an effective safety leader who’s able to enhance the health and safety of your organization, but it will also help you create a positive safety culture.

Additional Ways a Good Safety Leader Can Create a Positive Safety Culture

When you, as a safety leader, demonstrate your willingness to learn and hear your workers concerns, your workers will be more willing to bring pressing safety issues to your attention. In other words, when you’re willing to listen, your workers will be willing to speak and this will create an environment where people are willing to be proactive about safety hazards in the workplace without fear of punishment.  This openness between the safety leader and the workers is absolutely essential in creating a positive safety culture as it results in an open environment where safety issues are discussed, addressed and most importantly, resolved.

A good safety leader is one who wants to develop a positive safety culture within the organization. The first step towards that is taking advantage of the expertise of your own workers, being humble about your own shortcomings and showing a willingness to listen and to learn.


[1] https://www.conexusconsulting.com.au/facts-and-figures-1/white-paper-safety-leadership-the-role-of-the-executive-in-leading-a-safety-culture

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