Upside Down Safety and Red Pen Safety Non-Leadership
This in an older article by Dr Rob Long, I recently published it on LinkedIn Pulse and its proven to be very popular so worthy of resurrection again here:
A friend of mine who is the same age as I and who I have coached in safety and risk for 8 years, recently accepted a position as a Safety Manager with a civil construction company. Tom has more than 40 years experience across a range of industries including: logistics, automotive, public service, building and construction, juvenile justice, community services, transport and warehousing. Tom has a range of formal qualifications in these fields that complement his experience including, diplomas in case management, safety and mechanics. I have worked with Tom and supervised him in 4 different contexts (in Galilee, public service, juvenile detention and on a special project for an insurance company in rehabilitation for people who were long term unemployed and suffering a range of psychological injuries).
So, Tom took this new position and discovered that the non-leadership has no idea about safety, hence why the company advertised for the position. He entered the company thinking he would be managing safety and discovered he’d gone back to primary school. Very quickly he found himself under a General Manager (engineer with no qualifications or experience in safety) called Phil. Phil’s only focus in life is technical things and this is how he thinks about safety. As far as Phil is concerned safety is all about legislation, regulation and paperwork, not about actually keeping people safe.
From the moment Tom commenced with the company Phil has been preoccupied with the red pen. That’s right, he takes to Tom’s work each day with the red pen: concerned with spelling errors, format, grammatical mistakes and technicalities. The more Phil does this, the less ownership he gets from Tom. So here we are with a Safety Manager with extraordinary insight into safety and a General Manager who thinks that safety is about format not process.
Unfortunately, this is all too common, I have this presented to me often. Rather than concentrate on whether risk is being managed through the paperwork, many focus on whether the column was ruled at 2 centimetres. This kind of non-leadership went out in primary school education 30 years ago. In fact, such a strategy in staff and safety management is an insult to primary school teachers.
Tom will do a risk assessment and he gets the red pen, not on the assessment of risk but on whether the heading was missing a capital letter. Tom will do a site safety walk and gets the red pen, not on whether things are being done safely on site but on the misplacement of a comma. Tom will suggest a process to help keep workers safe and Phil is not interested unless it’s required by the legislation.
This case study is the kind of result and nonsense that minimalist regulation driven safety orchestrates. Rather than try and find if a person really is assessing risk, the focus is on whether the format of the paperwork meets some bizarre subjective judgment of correctness. This is ‘upside down safety’.
In a culture where upside down safety dominates, people quickly learn how to ‘tick and flick’, the General Manager gets wonderful colour shaded pages of well-formatted meaningless non-risk assessment. This understanding is the most common misunderstanding of the role of the regulator. People tend to think that the regulator’s only focus is the format of forms, not the understanding captured in the process to develop the content.
No amount of paperwork can tell you if a person understands risk. Paperwork at best is the tip of the iceberg and should always be understood as such. At best it is an indicator and avenue for a risk conversation, it should never be viewed as an end in itself. If the paperwork doesn’t represent reality it is not only meaningless it’s dangerous. Any encouragement of such a nonsense process creates cynicism, negativity, resentment, ‘double speak’ and fatalism. These characteristics are the foundation for safety culture disaster.
The key to safety leadership is engagement and connection with the workforce. All forms of alienation and punitive de-humanising conduct simply teach the workers that the boss is a moron and has no idea about risk. Rather than actually discern risks in their work and think about how to manage those risks, workers are taught by non-safety leadership (through micro-management) to tell the boss whatever he wants to hear. There is no exchange, no dialogue, no respect and no learning.
Such an understanding of risk and safety turns the whole equation of risk upside down. Real safety leadership knows how to look through the smoke screen of volumes of paperwork and tap into the culture of the workforce. Real safety leadership listens and converses with people about their paperwork and hears if risk is being understood and managed. Real safety leadership knows that ‘double speak’ and ‘risk arrogance’ kills people.
So if you have a red pen and want to lead in safety, keep the stupid thing in your pocket and learn how to listen and converse with others.