Recognizing Safety Leadership

“You are what your record says you are” 
     ~Bill Parcells

The start of this new year seems the perfect time to make a statement. A positive statement — about safety.

It’s time to recognize the good work leaders the world over do to make a real difference in safety. The work they do is huge: all too often unappreciated by their followers, sometimes even by their leaders. But not here, not by me.

So, in this first edition of the new year, let’s recognize the work done by one of your peers to make a difference in what matters most in the world of work: sending people home, alive and well at the end of the day.

Need a Compass?

Times being what they are, it’s easy to lose sight of what always matters most: safety. Sometimes someone will point out, “That’s not what my boss thinks.” So, if the boss thinks that safety isn’t that important — or worse, acts like it isn’t that important — does that mean safety isn’t that important?

Of course not. Safety is always that important.

Sooner or later, the boss will come to appreciate how important safety really is. You just hope it won’t take something really bad happening to do that, like his kid getting seriously injured on a job. Truth is, anyone who gets hurt is somebody’s son or daughter, sister or brother, father or mother.

Sometimes there’s the explanation, “Around here, we see safety as a value, not a priority.” Does that mean safety isn’t a priority?

If you’re tempted to say “Correct” you need to get out your dictionary. In the English language, a priority is defined as “that which comes first.”  When you truly value safety, safety will always come first.  Period. It’s when you don’t value safety as much as you should that safety comes in second.

Do not fall victim to that mistake.

Around here, we call the proper understanding of the importance of safety The Case for Safety. Safety is the most important duty of a leader because a serious injury can have a devastating effect on every single reason anyone heads out the door to go to work, and every one of those reasons is more important than anything else going on at work. It is that simple, and always that simple.

For a leader, the Case serves as a compass: it always points to what matters most. In the heat of the battle, that compass can come in handy.

Your Record

Of course, good leader that you are, you value safety as the most important thing you have to get done every day.  Knowing that doesn’t mean making that happen is easy. Au contraire: keeping people safe is likely the toughest task you face. Standing between you and your goal of zero harm is a formidable set of challenges. Challenges you know all too well: attitude, awareness, buy-in, compliance, complacency, culture, distractions, equipment, environment….

You can complete the list; it is yours. Point is, this isn’t easy.

How well you deal with those challenges ultimately determines your record: how many of your followers go home safe, and how many don’t. You can measure your success — or the lack thereof — by taking down names. Or by counting injuries. Or by calculating frequency rates. Take your pick: they all work.

This accounting is the bottom line of safety performance and your record as the leader. While there can be random variation in the short term — otherwise known as luck — in the long run, that bottom line reflects your value and contribution to safety – as the leader.

Coach Parcells said it perfectly: you are what your record says you are.

Making A Statement 

For many pursuits there are formal means to recognize great performance. In sports, there’s a trophy for the Most Valuable Player. Players with the best careers are enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Actors get Academy Awards; military heroes are awarded medals. As for those best at leading and managing safety, there’s…….uh……um…..ah….

Makes a statement, doesn’t it?

I know: when you signed up for the job of being a leader you weren’t seeking fame and fortune.  But for something as important as leading and managing safety — which is the priority — the best deserve to be recognized; the best of them enshrined in a Hall of Fame.

To fill this void, we created our award: the Balmert Consulting Safety Leadership Award. But this isn’t about us at all. This isn’t even entirely about those being recognized: by recognizing one safety leader, we recognize all leaders, the important work all leaders do to manage safety, and the value all leaders create by “raising the game” of their followers.

That’s the statement our safety leadership award makes.

Recognizing One Great Leader

This month we’re recognizing the work of one leader, for his results — and more importantly — his personal contribution to achieving those results.  Lonnie Brannin manages safety performance for an oil and gas drilling operation in North Dakota. If you know anything about that business and that environment, you’ll have no problem appreciating the tough safety challenges he faces.

In nominating Brannin for the award, Balmert Consulting’s Van Long described the nature of the safety leadership challenge he faced: “Like so many of his peers in the energy services business, Lonnie was running a highly hazardous operation characterized by high turnover and a ‘get it done’ culture. Achieving real change in safety performance can seem to fall somewhere between difficult and just about impossible.”

The nature of the challenge makes Lonnie’s accomplishments even more impressive. In 2017 the Recordable Injury Frequency Rate for his operation was 6.8, more than double the industrial average. Today it stands at .45!

As to how 90% plus improvement in the “bottom line of safety” was caused, Van described three key steps in the change process. First, Lonnie started to articulate his expectations. “What Lonnie told his people he was expecting from them was clear and a lot more demanding than his people had become used to.”

And then he backed up those expectations by holding people accountable. “People went from no feeling of being accountable to feeling totally accountable when things went wrong. Followers — from mid-level management down — all started feeling like they owned their safety performance and those of the individuals working for them.”

Lastly, Lonnie has provided on going safety leadership coaching and resources to his personnel to ensure they have the capability to achieve the expectations they are being held accountable for.

Clearly, Lonnie Brannin is a leader who is making a difference, and this leadership award comes as well-deserved recognition for his accomplishments in making the world a safer place to work.

Congratulations, Lonnie: because of you, the world’s a safer and better place to work.

As For You

Are you struggling with brutally tough safety challenges like work that is highly hazardous, culture that values production over safety. Or the lack of accountability? If so, you can take heart from what Lonnie has accomplished. He’ll be the first to tell you this isn’t easy. But it’s not mission impossible, and one leader can make a big difference!

Are you looking for answers to the question, “With challenges like these, what can one leader do to make a difference?” If you are, you can learn from Lonnie and put into practice the things he did to make a difference. The solutions to his challenges weren’t complicated. But that doesn’t mean they were easy. Execution never is.

But it’s entirely possible that you’ve successfully overcome tough challenges like these and have a record to prove it. If so, consider yourself similarly recognized —  and appreciated. Your followers — or your boss — might not appreciate you, but I sure do. I’ll speak for them: thanks for making their world a safer and better place to work.

That’s a statement that needs to be made!

Paul Balmert
January 2021

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