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Using Behavioral Techniques to Strengthen Safety Leadership

By Terry E. McSween, President and CEO, Quality Safety Edge

In past articles, I have discussed leadership’s most important activity, which is regularly reviewing safety efforts within the leader’s area of responsibility. For the past decade, Quality Safety Edge has promoted the use of safety leadership checklists to help ensure the consistency of visible safety leadership practices at each level of the organization.  In many ways, we view this as behavior-based safety for leaders, and directly analogous to the safety checklist used by observers to increase attention and positive feedback for safety practices on the job.

Recently, Atul Gawande’s excellent book, The Checklist Manifesto, has done an outstanding job of promoting the use of checklists for a variety of tasks, and has greatly enhanced acceptance of the use of checklists. Dr. Gawande makes the case that the complexity of today’s world has increased so dramatically that important procedural steps are likely to drop out simply as a function of simple probabilities. He proposes that most of us could benefit from job aids that prompt greater consistency than we are likely to sustain without them. As I reflect on the complexity of leadership in modern organizations, I have come to believe this is an area where checklists can serve us well. The risk that leaders will not consistently attend to safety during those times when they are not having problems is simply too great.  When incidents are not occurring and other issues are threatening to stop production, safety can drop off the radar screen much too easily. This is when a well-designed safety leadership checklist can help us sustain the focus.

After reading The Checklist Manifesto, I thought of an innovation that is currently affecting QSE’s practice. Dr. Gawande discussed at length efforts to simplify checklist use and even different kinds of checklists, such as “To-do lists,” agendas, and others.

As I reflected on our efforts to promote the use of separate safety leadership checklists, the thought occurred to me that we might be able to achieve better integration of safety within our client organizations if we made one slight change: rather than have a separate stand-alone leadership checklist for each level of the organization, what if we just standardized the safety portion of the agenda for various group and individual staff meetings that occurred at each level? Since that time, I have found leadership teams generally accept the idea of having a standardized safety agenda better than having a separate safety leadership checklist. I have summarized a comparison of the two approaches in Table 1 below. The big advantages to the structured agenda approach are its simplicity and its flexibility.  In a group, it provides an opportunity to share successes and also helps leadership teams analyze and address barriers.

An important feature of this approach is that it goes beyond just having safety first on the agenda and a review of incidents. It creates a culture where leadership shares and discusses both what they are doing to promote safety and what they are planning to do to promote safety in the coming week.

The agenda specifies a small number of practices that will be discussed in every meeting. Obviously, the agenda items are different at each level of the organization, just as the type of meeting may vary. Table 2 shows some of the types of meetings and safety items that might be discussed at different levels of the organization.

This is not to say that using structured agendas is a perfect solution for all. Some organizations really need to define and track a more robust set of safety leadership practices, and so a checklist may be more complete. For others, a structured discussion of what leaders have done on their action plans and what they are planning to do adds sufficient structure to support safety improvement efforts.

Table 1
Comparison of behavioral safety leadership checklists and standardized safety agenda.

Safety Leadership Checklists Standardized Safety Agenda
Distinct checklists of critical safety leadership practices Agenda defines a few critical behaviors
Adds recording and reporting tasks Recording done in meeting minutes
Computerized reporting May be paper and kept in binder
Formal reports Builds on existing structure

Table 2

Sample agenda items and types of meetings.

Organizational Level Safety Leadership Practices       Review Process
Plant Manager
  • Review safety plans/progress each week.
  • Staff meeting agenda
Department Manager
  • Meet weekly with all supervisors. 
  • Conduct field safety observations.
  • Discuss quality of tailgate discussions.
  • Individual or group
  • weekly meeting agenda
  • (may be cell phone for supervisors in the field)
  • Discuss employee BBS observations. 
  • Encourage incident reporting and review of same.
  • Discuss improvement targets and action plans.
  • Morning safety meeting agenda