How Do Most Organisations Rate on Safety Leadership?

Most organisations generally have good intentions when it comes to developing and implementing effective safety leadership programs, however, the execution of such programs often leaves a lot to be desired while results also fall short of expectations, according to Phil Walton, HSE director – Australia for Savanna Energy Services Corp.

“In general terms, there are a lot of good intentions,” he said.

“Most of us know that leadership is the game changer for safety performance. Execution however, is often poor and longevity is rarely achieved – great operation but the patient died.”

Walton, who was speaking ahead of SIA Visions Conference 2018(link is external), which will be held at the Mantra Southport on the Gold Coast from 5-7 September 2018, observed that there are a number of common hallmarks among organisations that have taken a more effective approach to safety leadership programs.

He explained that any serious discussion about safety leadership programs must start with an evaluation of readiness (which is seldom acknowledged).

“The maturity of the business will largely govern the nature of the program and its characteristics,” he said.

“For example, a program that worked spectacularly for a special forces unit may not be so appropriate in the upstream oil and gas industry – different environments and different levels of maturity.”

Consultation with the audience is imperative, explained Walton, who said that by talking to the target audience and asking them the right questions, the end user (i.e. intended participants) can be recruited to become architects of the program.

“You won’t have to worry about the program becoming a success as the end users will make it happen because it’s something that they want and something they see will add value,” he said.

“Integration into other core business objectives and strategies will make or break the program.

“If the program pulls participants too far away from what is important to the business strategically, it’s impact, sustainability and overall success will be seriously compromised. “There is an art to building a program around the strategic goals of the business to ensure good overlap, relevance and relatability,” said Walton.

OHS professionals need to be front and centre of a safety leadership program, and he said this begins at concept stage by playing a coaching and influencing role in helping the controlling minds of the business to make the right decisions when designing their program, allocating budget and setting timelines.

“It’s often a tough balance to strike,” he said.

“The OHS professional has to be the disruptor in these discussions – challenging norms and asking difficult questions. This can be hard work and lonely work. There are no silver bullets here.

“It takes time and diplomatic finesse (and this, by the way, is before the program even gets approved and leaves the Boardroom table),” he said.

A key point to remember is that during the lifecycle of the program, Walton said most people will be busy doing their day job.

“Interest in the program can wane after the predictable and initial spike in interest – somebody has to ensure the message is kept fresh and appealing,” he said.

“There is a definite branding and public relations aspect to the program. Guess who this job often falls to?”

There is also opportunity in taking a bold approach, Walton added: “Break the mold,” he said.

“If the engagement with the workforce has been successful, you’ll know the secret ingredients before you get started.

“The special blend of those secret ingredients may be a novel thing and not look like the off-the-shelf program.

“Lean into this and don’t be afraid of it. Do you want to be a bold leader or a timid follower?”

Walton said it is important for OHS professionals to coach and disrupt in this process.

“Ask questions to steer/elevate thinking. Organisations generally don’t respond well to being told what do,” he said.

“Coaching tends to consistently achieve better results. We have really begun to see this skill set emerge as a defining requirement for OHS professionals – not just in the safety leadership program space but across the board.”


Article first published by the Safety Institute of Australia.

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