My career in the mining industry started out like many of my peers. After graduation, I hired in at a surface coal mine, where, as a new mining engineer, I was given the responsibility for various small projects. Usually, the work was done by a contractor, and, given my lack of experience, they weren’t big jobs.
So, it was just me and a few contractors; I spent a lot of time out on the job with them, and got to know many of them well. They weren’t the safest people I ever met, and there were times when someone got hurt. It was my job they were doing, and I certainly felt some sense of responsibility for what happened – to them. On the other hand, they did have supervisors they reported to, and I was really just their customer.
After a few years, I was moved up into management, becoming a Production Supervisor in the mine. In the mining industry, it’s commonplace for an engineer like me to get a front-line supervisor’s job. Most of the top executives I knew had been a front-line supervisor at some point in their career. Frankly, I didn’t think much about it until I began teaching safety leadership as a consultant. Now that I’ve spent time with leaders in other industries, I have discovered that most executives don’t have that same experience.
There are important lessons about leadership you learn when you directly supervise a crew yourself. One of the biggest of them involves owning safety. Being responsible for safety and owning safety are nowhere near the same thing.
My First Real Injury
As a Production Supervisor, I had a big crew: on a typical shift, there were 70 people reporting to me, performing tasks that ranged from heavy equipment operating to loading blast holes. In those days, we took a lot of pride in our safety performance, but we were a long way from injury free. People got hurt, but there was one case that really got my attention. It was an injury to a crew member I knew really well, where he mashed up his hand and nearly lost a finger.
As to how it happened, as you can imagine there are a lot of big hazards to be found in a mine: haul trucks the size of a house, for example, and drag lines as big as a football stadium. But the hazard that really got my attention wasn’t anything like those. It was just a trailer hitch on a pickup: getting a hand tangled up while hooking up a trailer to the hitch wound up doing serious harm to a member of my crew.
For some reason, that one really hit home.
Looking back on the event, what now seems clear is that every task has its own risks and associated consequences. Often times some of the bigger tasks are well managed and focused on, while some of the smaller tasks can be left up to complacency or lack of focus. But both can have life changing consequences.
What else became clear to me was that, as a leader, I needed to be the one to make sure that my followers stayed focused on all their work and kept their safety awareness high.
Connect, Care, Commitment
When I’m standing in front of a room full of leaders, teaching safety leadership practices, I find myself using a lot of words that start with the letter “c”: connect, communicate, care, commitment, consistency, compliance. Sometimes even courage. Being good at safety leadership requires doing all of those things, and doing them well.
The simple act of caring is so important. Followers know when you really care, and what you really care about. But I will say that they won’t think you care just because you say the right few things; it’s more about convincing them that you really do care, and that takes time – and effort.
Later in my career, when I was managing a mine, another one of my followers suffered a serious hand injury. This time the culprit was a ring: his wedding ring. We had a rule that you had to take your ring off before starting work, and as you might guess, this was a case where that rule wasn’t being followed. He caught his ring on an edge while using a manlift, and wound up almost losing his finger as getting the ring cut off of his finger at the Emergency Room turned out to be quite the ordeal.
After checking out of the ER at 1 am, he showed up first thing in the morning. I met up with him, in of all places, the parking lot. Before you go jumping to any conclusions about that event, let me explain what happened.
As the mine manager, I could have had a reserved parking space up front in the lot, but my practice was to find a parking space just like everyone else. That morning, it just so happened I parked right next to him – at exactly the same time. We got out of our trucks – we knew each other – and nodded, then he joined up with some buddies, carefully keeping them between us.
It didn’t work out quite the way he hoped it would; at the gate, we were standing side by side. He looked at me and asked, “Well, are you mad at me for getting hurt?”
That was not what I was expecting to hear. “No, I’m not, but I know who is.”
I’m sure that was not what he was expecting to hear. “Who’s that?”
“Your wife. That was your wedding ring that was cut off at the hospital. If it wasn’t, you might have lost a finger.”
Sometimes showing care means telling someone something they don’t want to hear. But looking back, had I said the kind of things leaders often say in situations like this – you know, the “be careful not to offend” – it would have been a lot more like being responsible – and a lot less like owning safety.
The Path To Ownership
Looking back on my career as a leader, I can see the steady progress I made to feeling like I owned safety. It wasn’t a case of getting a wake-up call from a serious incident, but instead something that I just figured out from experience. It didn’t happen overnight.
When I became a manager and eventually managed an entire mine, as I looked at the supervisors and managers who reported to me, it was readily apparent where each of them was on that same path. There were those who I could tell owned safety just the same as I did, and there were others who acted like “Yes, safety is important. But so is production and schedule and making the boss happy”
I don’t think it’s possible for a leader to get great safety performance without truly owning safety. But I also don’t think it’s possible for a leader to “make” other leaders own safety. People have to come to that place on their own.
But that’s not to say a leader shouldn’t try to help make that happen. One of the best ways to do that is to lead by example.
I was fortunate to have worked for some really good safety leaders, ones who I had no doubt about their ownership of safety. One was a vice president, who, when he came upon someone not working safely would stick out his hand and start the conversation by saying, “I want to thank you for risking your life for me today.”
Of course, that is not where the conversation wound up. It was just this leader’s way of showing care and commitment to see to it that everyone worked safely. It made an impression on a lot of his followers. Including me.
The Last Word
I suppose you can consider feeling like you own safety as a state of mind. Every one of us owns what we think and how we feel about things, and safety is not an exception to that. So, if you’re a leader, it’s up to you to decide if you own the safety performance of your followers. I know I did for every single one of mine.
What I can tell you is this: once you decide you own safety, you’ll be one big step closer to getting great safety performance.