• Home
  • /
  • Tom Rozman
  • /
  • Leadership and Effective Organizational Safety and Health

Leadership and Effective Organizational Safety and Health

Comment from the Editor:

The following article is leadership oriented albeit from an occupational safety and health perspective—it compares and draws parallel with the military aspect and civil. Although, it is written in an American context, many of these systems and imperatives operate in the Canadian system and experience as well.

One of the ulterior motives in the piece is to demonstrate applicable military to civilian experience/skill sets of leaders and leadership in a specific area.

A very good read for leaders both military & civilian at all levels.

Leadership and Effective Organizational Safety and Health

 By: Thomas Rozman

This article and its comments reflect on the relationship “effective” organizational operational safety and health programs have with organizational leadership.

Some of the comments may occur to a reader as observations on the obvious.

But many years of observation indicate that assuming the “obvious” is getting or being done safety and health wise in an organization by leadership, especially if that leadership is not engaged with the safety and health program, will ultimately produce issues—even a fatality.

A truism I have seen borne out again and again relative to an organization’s safety and health program is that a program is only as good as its leader’s engagement with the program.

The following article will expand on that theme.

Some personal background information is in order relative to my credibility to make the following comment. Many of us were fortunate enough in our early careers to experience such programs as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. I was one person who did participate in the Boy Scout Program.

That program was an early exposure to good safety and health practices that translated well to later work environments. As well, parental influence and guidance in the safety and health areas may also contribute to good personal safety practices.

In my case, my father was an excellent teacher and example. A career Army officer who had risen through the ranks and in earlier civil life worked in the residential construction industry, he was my earliest source for safe and correct practices in use of tools, load bearing, heavy equipment, vehicles, weapons, powered equipment, and the list goes on.

That early experience in safety and health that many of us may recall was reinforced on early hourly jobs—but, I entered the work force several years before the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Law in its Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 1910 and 1926 format.

I did experience in five hourly jobs and one job for tips only some practices that were clearly not safe and definitely not healthy—some that came close to killing me and did injure. Thinking back, there typically was some form of safety and health standards in place. But, where these unsafe practices occurred, there was almost always a lack of effective leader involvement to assure adherence to the standards, even when training had been provided.

In these early pre-1970 occupational safety and health law situations, it wasn’t necessarily that worksite leaders were deliberately trying to be unsafe but in the absence of defined standards and engaged leaders, certain safety counterproductive behaviors would occur.

The environment at the time was not infrequently leavened by such as the  hazing of new employees, the macho man mentality and that “one sucked up the minor injury” that didn’t kill them, and the list goes on. In some ways these were cultural elements that were somewhat endemic in low level to full blown form—all of which left to their own devices had great potential to produce serious to fatal injury.

It was sort of a “quick and the dead” mentality. Of course this was not true of every worksite or the leaders on those sites, but clearly, pre-1970, the American worksite had some safety and health challenges—like many others, I know because I worked on those sites.

Then, I entered the Army.

My impression of the Army’s occupational safety and health environment over a 27+ year experience was that it was a remarkably effective organization in minimizing serious injuries or death due to inappropriate or avoidable hazard exposure.

To illustrate, I experienced everything from small to large caliber weapons use, operation of heavy equipment up to 70 tons, helicopter operations, use of explosives, bulk fuel handling and transport, just about everything dangerous one or an organization could be exposed to or do.

Compounding the magnitude of possible fatal injury exposure were the number of large armored vehicles that might be operating or the large number of weapons and ordinance being in use with hundreds to thousands of employees (soldiers) integrated with that equipment and exposure to the potential hazards.

As I look back, in the training and non-deployed environment alone, both with their seemingly impossibly dangerous environments, serious injuries and fatalities were generally far lower than one might expect. Typically, in some organizations, they were non-existent. Why?

In answer to the question and again thinking back, the Army might have been characterized as occupational safety and health paranoid. Detailed safety plans, programs and instruction existed for every piece of equipment, operation, movement, handling of ammunition, weapons. Whole manuals existed on safety and health with frequent training.

Safety officers were assigned to all weapons ranges and failed to follow safety procedures at their peril—there would be individual accountability of the safety officer if an incident developed. Every company sized unit had a unit safety officer assigned on orders—I twice had the experience of being assigned as a unit safety officer (both were armored units of some 150-190 employees) as well as operating as a firing range safety officer for some 20 weapons types from small to large caliber and flamethrowers as well as planning and participating in a number of major gunnery training exercises.

This included high angle firing weapons with live ammunition. I recall that I took these responsibilities with a “sincere sense” of interest, dedication and personal commitment as infractions by individuals were punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) either with administrative punishment or judicial punishment if the infraction rose to that level.

Organizational failure could be investigated under several regulations and the leader assigned at every level up to the commander responsible, depending on the investigative findings and recommendations, could suffer individual prosecution under the UCMJ if the failure that produced serious injuries or death determined that the level of failure to perform duty as required or negligence warranted that level of sanction.

In a word, there were well defined safety standards and procedures, training on same, and defined safety responsibility for the individual soldier and the leader. Leader responsibility rested at several levels if an incident occurred. Safety was not just on the individual soldier’s or the safety officer’s shoulders–it was a leader responsibility as well. The latter included close attention to trending data for injuries by every level of leader in the command and being pro-active and aggressive in dealing with any negative trends. Keeping soldiers alive and whole was seen as a sacred duty by the leader.

Leaders not measuring up usually had short careers.

Again, generally, given the high level of hazard that could develop on a work site, with the procedures and standards that had been developed and were in force, combined with proper planning, training and leader engagement, in my experience with the Army, the injuries were almost ridiculously less than what one might expect.

One incentive to all leaders at every level was that safety was a leader responsibility and all leaders knew that they might well be held accountable for a failure of the safety program. This does not mean that the system broke down on occasion with injuries or worse developing.

Typically, in the latter case investigations tended to reveal less than adequate leader engagement in the more serious cases, the leader in such case being removed from the position and an immediate remedial training program being initiated for the organization. It should be noted that high effectiveness in unit safety was often rewarded and considered a measure of a leader’s competitive competence for later promotion.

Post-Army I have experienced operational safety programs on the civil sector side for over 23 years. That experience has included development and implementation of occupational safety and health programs in civilian organizations to consultation and compliance operations.

One experience has been instructive in many ways, but particularly in the relationship between occupational safety and health system/program effectiveness in organizations ranging from small “mom and pops” to international corporations and everything private and public sector in between–that is the relationship organizational leadership has with the organization’s safety and health programs.

An experience that has greatly informed on this aspect has been serving as a hearing official for well over 2500 (over my tenure the jurisdiction has conducted some 8,000-9,000 compliance inspections) informal conferences concerning issued occupational safety and health citations.

Generally, with organizations where the leaders (presidents, CEOs to line supervisors) see themselves as the “primary safety and health officers” even with safety professional staff employed as safety directors or managers, and are deeply engaged in the organization’s safety programs, inspections tend toward no citation issued or relatively minor citations.

The leader is aggressive and proactive safety wise in such organizations and the results show. In the organizations where the leadership is not invested in the same manner, gives safety lip service, delegates the safety and health operation to a safety director (who gets fired if all is not well in an unannounced inspection), or tends to view any failure of the organization’s safety program as an employee failure rather than seeing the systemic or leader shortfalls and taking a lessons learned approach, items cited tend to be more substantial and numerous.

In my experience with occupational safety and health on the civil side, again, now 23 years and counting, I have witnessed some impressive progress and equally impressive programs. But I have also noticed a greater tendency on the civil side away from full leader engagement or full accountability in the organization’s occupational safety and health systems and programs—there appear to be too many leaders too quick to seek to place blame for an issue on the junior employee or otherwise attempting to deflect responsibility.

The concern of course is that if such is the leader’s mentality not to assume responsibility for a program they are responsible for—the concern of worse results in future develops.

After all, even if all employees are trained and equipped and we have a sanction system we use when they fail to meet internal standards, it is nevertheless the engaged and observant leader who will detect the failure to meet standard over time in operations and bring junior staff, through that engaged leadership, to the set standard and where necessary based on continuous assessment of operations to an indicated higher standard.

The leader is always the “fail safe” to bringing the organization to high performance and all operations, safety and health included, to where the organizations says it will or should be.

The above does not mean to suggest that we have a failure in leadership in our civil community as there certainly are many civil side leaders who get it and do it right—many creatively and with outstanding innovation.

But, from much personal observation we do have more than a few that would greatly benefit from bringing themselves up to speed on a more engaged and involved leadership of their organizations’ safety and health systems and programs—after all they should be leading the way. They are in the end responsible for their organizational safety and health systems and whether or not those systems meet or exceed the standard.

Note: Thomas Rozman has led 13 organizations of 14 to 800 employees. Positions range from commander to director in operational military security and training organizations in the U. S., South Korea and Germany to park, capital outlay and state occupational safety/health operations. More