On Being a Safety Leader

“They’re terrified of you!” one of my staff tells me in conversation.  “I just don’t understand why” is all I can say with the most dumbfounded look on my face.  I’m not perfect, but I do feel like I go a good job at making my fellow workers comfortable and successful in their jobs.  Our whole leadership team has an open door policy and most of the staff is in and out of our office regularly with questions, suggestions, and good old plain chitchat.  When I can get out from under the pile of paperwork and desk projects, I make my rounds to my areas for check-ins, maybe some training, or just getting back to the work that I miss at times.  I have an excellent relationship with the staff that has been around for some time, but a handful of the staff, most of them newer to the department, are very reserve, and I just can’t seem to break the ice.  Then one day it just clicked, I’m the department safety representative and a supervisor to boot.

“So what?” you might be thinking to yourself.  There are numerous safety leaders at every company out there.  As true as that is, I’m willing to bet that a good portion of them have similar issues.  Many people have a hard time talking to their safety person because a good portion of the time it seems that all we talk about are the things you can’t do or discussing how you can do things better (well not always better but at least safer).  I’ll be the first to admit that workplace safety is boring and everything you try to do to make it more palatable turns out to just be corny.  My position becomes a little more unique in that I am also the scheduler and time keeper for our department.  That means most of the time off requests are approved or declined by me and all time card issues, big or small, come to my attention first.  Because I am the way I am, I more often than not take care of all the things personally that pop up, both the good and the bad.  There is a thought that’s been around for some time now that people remember the negatives things longer and more vivid than any positive.  That became my first thought.  I’m the one that always says no, so of course they don’t want to interact with me.  There’s a problem with that though.  This prospective would rationalize that it’s the duty that is creating the problem and there is nothing I can do about it.  I just could not accept that. How can I get so much out of performing these tasks without there being a way to make it just as beneficial, productive, and positive to my colleagues as it is for me?  For that we must take a look at my journey, understand why I like these duties so much, and then take a look from the inside-out to find the solution.

I first dove into safety when one of my supervisors was preparing to be on maternity leave.  Leadership was looking for avenues to cover most her duties, department safety being one of them.  I was asked if I would take on one, and in agreeing, have been fulfill the role of department safety representative since.  At first it was fairly simple. I would track our department’s safety compliance, arrange for classes when employees were due, and attempt to teach the subjects that were taken care internally rather than through safety.  One of the key duties of this role was to make sure that all new hires were compliant before stepping out to the areas to begin their on-the-job training.  This usually consisted of 4 to 6 hours of do this, don’t do this, here is how you can get hurt, how do you stay safe, and all the things that will happen administratively when things go wrong.  When I first started, this was something that might have happened once a year, maybe every other year.  Next, I started to get involved in dive safety at our facility while our department also grew explosively at the same time.  Now I was doing 6 to 8 hours of safety training on an employee’s first day several time a year.  What a way to welcome someone into the fold!

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But, it was fun.  There was the challenge of making sure everyone was compliant while minimally impeding their work time.  It was a constant, ever changing puzzle to solve.  I was given opportunities to help launch a new training tracking software for our facility and implement a new Designated Person in Charge (DPIC) training for our companies dive operation best practices.  The need for higher levels of trainers led to me getting my Dive Master and Diver Alert Network (DAN) Instructor certifications.  I was developing personally, professionally, and helping my colleagues work safer and more productive.  What changed that made it harder to connect?

My position changed, that’s what.  After several years there was an opportunity for a supervisor position, and I was both happy and excited to accept when offered.  My role as safety representative didn’t change much but now instead of a co-worker showing someone the ropes I was the supervisor telling you how the job went.  I clearly remember my boss coaching me to take it slow as to not create a rift between me and my colleagues I was now overseeing. I should have applied that to my new hire orientations as much as I did to my established relationships. Recently I realize that the first interaction beyond a possible interview with all new staff was as a department leader lecturing on company and department rules that were not to be broken.  No matter how many personal stories I told to lighten the subject material, this was a barrier I could not break.  Additionally, we were trying to shove large amounts of information into a short period of time out efficiency.   This however was not my only hurdle to overcome.

With the new duties that I slowly accumulated, such as scheduling, time keeping, and large projects beyond the department, I was finding it harder and harder to balance all my responsibilities.  I would schedule new hire department orientations, get all the information presented, paperwork signed, and shift these new colleagues off to area trainers.  I lost the personal one-on-one training opportunities. Many times the next interaction with these employees happened to be the not so pleasant kind.  No wonder they were “terrified”.  All in all, I basically failed my new hires by not giving them the priority they deserved when being welcomed into the department.  So, I then knew that the change had to come from me and how I performed these duties.

To start, I now give new hires the time they deserve, not the time I feel I can give.  I went from a single 8 hour day of safety training to two full days of true orientation.  I impress upon myself to shift all priorities to make this happen. These orientations now include the required safety training sprinkled in with facility walks, colleague introductions, and good old conversations to get to know each one of them.  As a matter of fact, we don’t talk about safety stuff until about the second or third hour.  It was day and night in comparison.  Prior, our new hires would stumble around for the first few days, not sure where to go, what to do, or even who to talk to.  After the change, new hires are comfortable talking with the team the first morning with their area trainers, and I see a lot less deer in the headlight looks as they walk around.

The next big change I made was to start letting go.  There was no reason for me to deal with all the problems I come across when there are three other of members of Leadership around.  Instead of thinking that it will be easier to take care of documentation, conversations, or updates to SOPs myself, I needed to allow the other supervisors to learn and develop as much as I do when performing these tasks.  It wasn’t just delegation, it was utilization of the tools available to me (I needed to practice what I preached in my trainings: “Work smarter, not harder.”) Just these two changes in the way I perform my job duties have taken me light-years from where I was.  I have more free time, more opportunities, and better success with creating positive, productive relationships with my colleagues.  Small changes with big benefits, sounds like a win.

Lesson learned.  Hopefully my lessons learned can give you a new perspective on what it is like being the safety guy whether that is you or your fellow colleague.

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