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How Do You Lead to Create a Safety Ownership Culture? - Part II


In Part I, Ken Chapman answers the most common question leaders ask about our approach to safety: “What does a safety ownership culture looks like?” In this second part, I will discuss how a leader can lead the team to an ownership culture.


It will come as no surprise to readers of Safety Beyond the Numbers, that successfully leading a team to an ownership culture starts with the leader, and not the team. In the book, we describe how the way a leader thinks about their people determines how they see them, how they then treat them, and ultimately how their people respond. This is the “thought, talk, walk” paradigm of human behavior.


Part I describes specific behaviors you can expect to see in an ownership culture. The problem is, if the leader only sees his or her responsibility as ensuring compliance, they will have difficulty recognizing any of the ownership behaviors noted. To that leader, an ownership culture will look very similar to a compliance-only culture, albeit with inexplicably superior safety results exhibited by the former.

Let me explain this more fully with a personal example.


When I, as a site leader, saw my safety responsibility as ensuring the facility was free of OSHA violations, I could observe a work area and quickly determine if there were any problems. Typically, there were none. But when my view of my responsibilities changed – that no one should ever be injured here – my perspective on the floor changed with it. Now, that same work area looked very different to me:


Look at that 18” drop-off from the platform. Can I imagine someone stepping backwards and falling, hitting their head? Absolutely! Would it surprise me if someone put their hand in that pinch point and crushed a finger? Not at all!


Where before I saw no issues, I was now inundated with them.


So, the key to understanding what a safety ownership culture looks like lies first in owning safety yourself. You’ll then have your own sound basis to answer the question of “what ownership looks like.” And chances are if you were operating in a compliance-based culture, you will suddenly feel very alone, because no one else will see what you are seeing. You will see a huge amount of work that must be done, that will take everyone (not just the safety department, or the management team) to accomplish. This is when you will notice most keenly that almost all the things mentioned in Part I, are missing.


Then how do you lead the team toward those behaviors? The short (and only) answer is, you get your team to see what you see. You turn them into owners. But ownership is both a two-way street and a two-edged sword. It must not only be given, but accepted. And it is at the same time a gift, and a responsibility. The first step is to again, focus on you.


Are you giving others real responsibility? Do they have the ability to exercise judgment and make decisions that affect their jobs? When you look at their work area, what is the condition? Is it well-lit, with good working and walking surfaces and places to properly place tools and equipment? (In other words, does it look like an environment where a reasonable person could be expected to own their job?) Is there ample opportunity for the person to give feedback to their supervisor, and for supervisors to provide information important for an owner to know? Only after these concerns are successfully addressed can a leader then turn to look at the individual.


Not everyone wants the responsibility of owning their jobs; even the safety component. It is less stressful and easier to do what someone else tells you to do. For these people, meaning is found outside of work. Work is for a paycheck that supports their real life that starts when they clock out. A leader must decide if that is acceptable behavior from a team member. If it is – if ownership is an option – then you cannot create an ownership culture. But if it’s not – if ownership of all the important aspects of your job, including safety, are an expectation – then the culture will start building itself. You will see it, and they will as well.


What a safety ownership culture looks like, and the building of that culture, are not separate issues. Each supports and boosts the other in a continuous upward spiral.



Tony Orlowski

Co-Author, Safety Beyond The Numbers


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