Style Matters

SafetyLeadership styles have a big impact on safety culture.   

By Joshua Estrin  

The impact of managerial leadership styles is not a new topic in the broader realm of occupational safety and health. In recent years, the construction industry also has recognized the importance of using it as a means by which to measure and, in some ways, proactively approach safety management issues by understanding that certain ways in which those in charge of the job site safety approach safety means and methods can have a more effective outcome on avoiding accidents and keeping the worker safe.

Historically, while the industry has examined potential improvements regarding workplace safety, little has been done to explore and address a cohesive and agreed upon concept of safety leadership. Of late, an increased focus on leadership as an antecedent towards overall worker safety and safety perceptions has led to a better understanding that time and attention must be directed towards leadership styles as they can and will influence workers’ attitudes and behaviors. 

Industry research further underscores this and points towards the positive influence between leadership style and overall job site safety.  There exists room for far greater understanding as it relates to the construction industry as, to date, only limited time, attention and resources have been allocated to understanding the extent to which effective safety leadership can be utilized as a construct that can be measured and in turn replicated across the industry. 

Much of the early research regarding leadership style and workplace safety focused on relationships or, more specifically, concern on the part of management for the worker. While this might seem obvious, in an industry that has some of the highest accident rates, concern if not operationalized, is simply an idealistic model that does not protect the construction worker. The real question is, how does the industry support relationship-oriented leadership so that it is more than just an idea and instead a top down, bottom up approach that has the ability to help both supervisor and worker avoid unseen acts, unseen hazards or a combination of both and will inevitably lead to fewer accidents and injuries? 

Relationship Building

At least part of the answer to this question appears to be in a better understanding of Relationship Based Leadership.  While there are many models and variations, the core concepts remain the same, with social interchange imperative at all levels based on:

• Inclusivity

• Empowerment

• Purposefulness

•Being process oriented

Clearly, safety does not happen in a vacuum and as such, inclusivity is integral to supporting trust between those who are in charge of not only creating safety policies and procedures, but those who are tasked with their implementation. This cannot happen without the creation of an information loop that involves all parties and is based on empowerment or the willingness to support management and worker to take responsibility for sharing ideas, concerns and feedback regarding safety without fear of negative repercussions.

The idea of purposefulness is another important objective as that which cannot be effectively implemented and measured is of no use in objectively moving from theory to practice in the world of construction safety management. Active leaders are involved with proactive monitoring of worker behavior supporting close attention to safety rules and regulations. 

Rising to the Challenge

The ever-changing safety challenges of the construction job site have long been seen as one of the greatest obstacles to long-term worker safety, but this does not need to be the case if safety is seen as a process with roots in clearly identified policies and procedures that embrace the need for flexibility in the application of protocol on a daily basis. The core concept of keeping the worker safe should never be negotiable; but the ability to effectively strategize which policies and procedures are most applicable for any given task and prioritizing them as such, is imperative when safety is approached as a fluid process rather than a static entity.  

In an industry that has historically focused on authority, superiority and dominance as a means of leadership, relationships appear to be part of the solution to take safety to the next level with a laser focus on keeping the worker safe. The entire industry must rise to the challenge and let go of the outdated manager–subordinate model that considers only the perceived benefits of simply supporting the status quo. 

Understanding the quality of the relationship between the worker and his or her supervisor moves safety outcomes beyond the goal of forcing the worker to comply. In addition, understanding relationships helps all involved parties understand the importance of a commitment to safety at the highest level and how it applies on a daily basis to those most at risk: the worker. 

 

Joshua Estrin is a senior associate at Sarasota, Fla.-based construction forensic services firm Stephen A. Estrin & Co. Inc., specializing in behavioral safety management support. He is also an adjunct professor at Columbia University in New York City. He can be reached at [email protected].

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