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Safety Leadership in a Post COVID-19 World

June 30, 2020

Workplace health and safety is top of mind for everyone now – perhaps more than ever. Organizations across every industry and part of the globe have been impacted by COVID-19. It has profoundly changed operations and safety systems for many employers, leading us rapidly to a new normal. 

Safety Leadership in a post-COVID-19 WorldAs many companies begin to ramp up their activity and bring people back to work in these new conditions, effective safety leadership is critical. But these are new and uncertain times, with unique challenges and shifting priorities. What type of safety leader will be most successful in a post-COVID-19 world? Here are five essential safety leader behaviors that can help your organization return to work as safely and successfully as possible. 

Clear, Honest, and Frequent Communication

It may sound cliché, but a pandemic is no time for leaders to go radio silent. Whether it’s new PPE requirements or work-from-home (WFH) policies, employees want to know what is required of them, what the risks are, and most importantly, why their employer is asking them to do certain things. Some global organizations have been too reactive in their communications, resulting in employees who had to find out from their local news about confirmed COVID-19 cases in their workplace, rather than hearing it from their leaders. This often leads to employee anxiety, lack of trust, and increased risk of illness, not to mention negative press. Today’s safety leaders must communicate often, honestly, and directly about safety topics. Team members will always appreciate this in the end, and it will often lead to greater engagement in safety. 

Related: The Power Of "WHY" When Communicating Employee Safety

Listening and Empathy

It goes without saying that in times like these, we need empathy more than ever. But do your company’s supervisors and managers display empathy when it comes to safety? Employees currently have many rational, well-founded concerns about becoming infected on the job. At the same time, many will find it challenging to adjust their work habits and routines to new safety rules (e.g., wearing masks, social distancing, frequent handwashing). They need to be able to express their concerns and be heard. Safety leaders from the shop floor to the C-Suite must excel at active listening, demonstrating empathy, and seeking to understand the perspective of their team members. Only then will they be able to get buy-in from the workforce on new work requirements. 

Proactive Risk Management

Hindsight is 20/20 and it would be unfair to have expected that organizations could be fully prepared for one of the greatest pandemics in modern history. However, given what we now know, how effective would it be to take zero preparedness measures for future unexpected events? Recent events have made it clear that tomorrow’s safety leaders must be more proactive in their risk management. This is difficult, and it requires taking an honest and hard look at your current organizational capabilities. In a post COVID-19 workplace, leaders must be able to develop contingency plans, build emergency preparedness, and anticipate novel types of risk. Unfortunately, many supervisors and managers today lack the experience, knowledge, and personality traits needed to excel at this difficult aspect of safety leadership, so it's important to include this in focus areas for safety leadership development.

Knowing Your Team Members and Their Safety-Related Traits 

The future state of work will demand that safety leaders know their team members at a deeper level and understand their differences. Employees now must process and adapt to hazards and conditions they have never encountered before while adhering to new safety policies. Not everyone will respond in the same manner; interpersonal differences in traits and attitudes can contribute to significant variability in behavior. Where one employee interprets wearing a mask and gloves as a strict, unbendable rule, another will see it as a guideline they can bend as soon as it becomes too uncomfortable. The point is not whether the policy is necessary or prudent, but rather that leaders can be more effective at implementing illness prevention policies when they understand the unique perspective of each individual. Leaders can only achieve this, however, by investing time and effort in getting to know their team members.

Learn how to make your safety moments more personal.

Adaptability and Learning Agility

As discussed previously, the pandemic has forced many changes upon the workplace at unprecedented speed. Leaders have had to adapt quickly and learn new communication software and technology, implement COVID-19 safety procedures, learn to work from home, and manage employees working remotely, all while trying to run operations safely and efficiently. This all requires high levels of adaptability and learning agility, both of which predict success in higher-level leader roles. Adaptable leaders can thrive more easily in times of change, while learning agile leaders are better able to learn from experience and then apply those learnings to future situations. With the potential of COVID-19 to linger well into 2021 and the possibility of future adverse global events, the health and well-being of your employees will require leaders to adapt and learn effectively.  

So, what can an organization do to improve these competencies and skills in their safety leaders? Below are three simple ways you can get started.  

  • Develop a strategy and roadmap to get there. Identify how your organization defines safety leadership and how this aligns with existing values and objectives, and then develop a roadmap with concrete steps to build a strong pipeline of future safety leaders. Research the topic, seek input from others, and invite stakeholders to the table in this process.  

  • Selection and promotion. Do you know your organization’s current process for identifying supervisors, managers, EHS staff, and others who will be safety leaders? What tools or processes do they use to hire or promote leaders? Ask whether there is any data-driven evidence that supports the use of the current selection and promotional process and how it incorporates safety.  

  • Learning and development. Does your employer currently provide any leadership training that has a defined safety component? Many organizations do not have this in place, and even when they do, it’s often focused only on the technical and EHS aspect. Technical expertise is not sufficient, however. Safety leaders also must possess soft skills and competencies in order to lead safety sustainably.  

While this list is not meant to be exhaustive, it provides many of the key building blocks for success in future safety leadership roles. Investing in these critical roles will provide a strong foundation to help your employer weather the storms we are facing today and those that will surely come in the future.  

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Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. is the Director of Safety Solutions at PSI. He manages the development and implementation of all safety solutions and services, which address some of the critical challenges faced by organizations today in workplace safety.