3 Ways to Become a Safety Leader

By Kevin Burns
Last updated: January 8, 2019
Key Takeaways

Being an effective safety leader is all about creating other leaders by empowering members of your team to take safety seriously.

Knowing safety rules, laws and procedures does not make you a safety leader. If you are in the safety industry, you must know the legislation and procedures. That is a basic job requirement. If you were applying for a safety job, you would need to have the same knowledge of the rules, laws and procedures as the other forty people competing with you for the same position.


Your safety certification does not automatically make you a safety leader. Becoming a safety leader is largely dependent on what you choose to do with your safety certification – the same certification every other candidate gunning for your job would have.

Who Are the Safety Leaders?

There are mediocre safety professionals and there are effective safety professionals. You are one of the two. There are far more mediocre safety professionals than there are effective ones. That is not a slight against the profession; it is just the numbers.


The 80/20 rule applies here: 80% of safety professionals are middle-of-the-pack performers, while 20% are high-performers. You can apply the rule across every job function, department and manager: out of five job candidates, only one will be above average. Not everyone is a star player, and only a few become leaders in their respective field.

Here’s where it gets interesting. To become a safety leader, you don't need to be certified in safety. Anyone can be a safety leader, from front-line employees to senior managers. Safety leader is not a position; it is a testament to your effectiveness (find out what happens When Safety Leadership Fails: Lessons Learned from Major Disasters).

How to Become a Safety Leader

What separates good safety professionals from mediocre ones is how effective they are at their job. So, put aside your preconceived notions of leader being another word for someone in a supervisory or management capacity. Let go of the need to assert your safety position or responsibility. It’s actually getting in the way of you becoming a more effective safety leader.

Here are three ways you can start becoming one today.

1. Create More Safety Leaders

It sounds counter-intuitive, but if you want to be considered a leader, you have to be willing to create more people just like you. These people will possess capabilities that will likely surpass your own. If you’re trying to keep people down, you’re not leading – you’re suppressing. Leaders don’t hold people back. That’s a thing that mediocre and insecure managers and supervisors do.


The purpose of a fruit tree is not to grow fruit, but to grow another tree. Likewise, the purpose of a leader is to build more leaders. If you are afraid of being replaced by someone you helped to develop, then you’re protecting your job, not helping them in theirs. Lousy, insecure managers protect their jobs. Leaders build others up even to the point of finding themselves replaced by one of their own.

But never forget, a good company will see the value of the safety leader and want to keep that person working and developing more safety leaders. Safety leaders build the talents and boost the performance of others, which makes them invaluable (learn 5 Ways to Get Executive Buy-In for Health and Safety).

2. Change Your People View

How do you view your people? As shortcut takers who can’t be trusted when you have your back turned? Or do you see them as good people wanting to do good work and make good decisions?

How you view people will determine your approach. If you don’t think you can trust employees to make the right decisions, you will approach the job as safety cop whose only role is enforcing rules. If you view people as good and wanting to do the right thing, you will see yourself more as a coach and mentor (learn more about Enhancing Safety Culture Through Mentorship Programs).

People-view is perhaps the most important idea for a safety professional to concentrate on. If you can determine how you view the individual members of your team, you can determine your willingness to work with the members of the team. Your people-view predetermines your level of connection and the relationship you will have with people. If you believe that someone can’t be trusted, you won’t trust them. You will alter your interpersonal communication with them accordingly.

Become very clear about your own people view. Come to the belief that your people are essentially good and want to do work they can be proud of. If you do, you will honor your people, treat them like professionals, and have high expectations (which many will surpass). Who wouldn’t want to work with a safety leader who believed their people are a collection of exceptional individuals who bring unique strengths to the table?

3. Change the Conversation

Spend time in safety-focused LinkedIn Groups and you will see some disturbing signs of lack of safety leadership. It’s not unusual to see negative comments written by safety professionals chastising management for their lack of commitment to safety.

Amazingly, some of the critics and complainers are themselves looking for work in the safety industry. Others are already employed, yet criticize their bosses. In public. On a social network. (Insert head shake here.) Who would want to hire or keep a safety professional who blames, criticizes and complains?

Companies want to hire safety leaders, and safety leaders don’t complain, blame and criticize. Instead, they find positive ways to reinforce good behavior, encourage positive dialogue and build strong, supportive teams. Safety leaders don’t offer up excuses; they stand for accountability. Safety leaders don’t scare their people into compliance with gory accident photos or gut-wrenching workplace injury stories; they rally their people into looking out for and positively supporting each other. Safety leaders choose their words carefully and look for ways to improve, regardless of the obstacles in their way.

Change the conversation by changing the tone of your words. Get rid of the criticism, blame and complaining. Focus on what’s most important: the safety performance of the future safety leaders right in front of you.

Share This Article

  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • X

Written by Kevin Burns

Kevin Burns
Kevin Burns is a management consultant, safety speaker and author of "The Perfect Safety Meeting" and "Running With Scissors - 10 Reasons To Invest in Safety In Slow Times."

Related Articles

Go back to top