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Do You Have What it Takes to be a Safety Leader?

December 17, 2014

safety-leaderI’ve been doing a bit of reading on safety leadership lately, and I’ve noticed a consistent theme in the safety consulting and research literatures: Identifying the characteristics of successful leaders. Countless articles present lists of mostly personality-based traits that are posited to predict which employees will gravitate toward leadership roles in the organization. OSHA even has a ‘Safety & Health Leadership Quiz’ that rates your safety leadership skills. Clearly personality is a key component of safety leadership, but to paint the whole picture we must also consider the behaviors of effective leaders.

Indeed, certain personality characteristics strongly influence a person’s leadership style and effectiveness, and we have discussed their importance in some of our previous safety blogs. However, these desired characteristics have limited value until they are translated into strong safety leader behaviors. Furthermore, individuals who score lower on trait-based leadership measures, particularly younger employees with little or no management experience, might become discouraged from pursuing such a role if their assessment scores in these areas are low. This brings me to my main point: Safety leadership is more about your behavior (what you do) than your personality (who you are). If this is true, then by definition, safety leadership can be trained. Specifically, YES, you do have what it takes to be a safety leader!

In order to be a successful safety leader, the first step is to understand your personal SafetyDNATM, which represents your psychological profile as it relates to safe behavior and risk, based on four key safety factors:

  • Stays in Control
  • Aware of Surroundings
  • Follows Rules
  • Exhibits Caution

This is where personality characteristics come into play. Your SafetyDNA is your default mode the context of workplace safety; it is relatively stable over time and difficult to change. However, knowing your safety blind spots allows you to adjust your behaviors at work accordingly, which will reduce your risk of being injured on the job. Additionally, it helps you be better equipped to recognize hazards in your work environment and the relative levels of safety behavior that your coworkers display. With this new information, you can build yourself up as a safety leader.

Let me emphasize here that with the proper insight and coaching, anyone in the organization can be a safety leader, and anyone can learn the skills and behaviors needed to be a safety leader, regardless of their SafetyDNA profile. As I have described in recent blogs, an effective safety leader:

  • Lays out a Vision
  • Embraces Change
  • Acts as a Coach
  • Demonstrates Credibility

Every organization needs formal safety leaders, such as managers seeking to keep employees safe, and informal safety leaders, such as a line worker who carries influence among coworkers concerning safety standards on the floor. Thus, there are opportunities at various levels of the organization for you to influence the safety culture. Adopting these behaviors may or may not come naturally to you, but you CAN develop this skill set if you are proactive about improving your workplace safety behaviors and motivating your coworkers to do the same.

Four Behaviors of Safe Leaders - The L.E.A.D. Model


Craig White Craig White is a doctoral student in the industrial/organizational psychology program at Texas A&M University. His research domains include selection test development, training, and team processes and performance. He has been closely involved in applied safety and health research projects at the Michael E. DeBakey VAMC Health Services Research and Development CoE in Houston, TX.