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Are You a Safety Manager or a Safety Leader?

By Bryan McWhorter
Published: May 16, 2019
Key Takeaways

Safety leaders do more than manage - they build relationships and influence others.

Being a safety manager is not the same thing as being a safety leader.

Every safety manager should strive to become a safety leader. Those who choose to be safety leaders will have more success in keeping others safe and will have a more positive impact on their company's performance goals.

In this article, we'll parse the difference between managers and leaders and look at the three characteristics that make someone a safety leader.


Managing Vs. Leading

Everyone who is a manager is a manager of something:

  • Project manager
  • Department manager
  • Production manager
  • Division manager
  • Quality manager
  • Safety manager

And what do they do with the things they're tasked with managing? They maintain control over them, and maybe even drive improvements in these areas.

Managing is like treading water. You are keeping your head above the water, but not going anywhere. We manage our households, finances, time and our businesses, but we don’t lead any of them.

Leadership is a purely human activity. (I know animals can have leaders, too, like the alpha wolf, but if you're reading this, I am going to assume your human.) Unlike managing, it is one hundred percent about the relationship between people. Leadership is a decision you make and not a position you hold. There is only one definition of a leader: they have willing followers. Leaders have influence.

(See Face-to-Face Safety: The Right Way to Build a Safety Culture for related reading.)

I have met people in positions of authority who love to bark orders at subordinates. They relate well with the image of the alpha wolf – they just can't relate with people.

Safety managers have a rough road to travel. They are tasked with keeping workers safe without negatively influencing performance goals. Choosing to go beyond managing safety by becoming a safety leader will increase your ability to not only drive safety but support all company goals. Leaders foster loyalty and trust. This enables healthy teams to drive performance, to succeed at their work and do it safely.

Behavior Based Safety

In 1931, Herbert William Heinrich published the book Industrial Accident Prevention: A Scientific Approach. In it, he claimed that 90% of all work-related accidents were caused by "unsafe behavior." Studies conducted by DuPont in 1965 affirmed Heinrich's conclusions and gave rise to behavior based safety.

(Learn more in 8 Things to Know About Behavior Based Safety.)


If behavior is the dominant factor when it comes to controlling safety, then influencing behavior in the workplace is the best way to keep people safe. That's why safety leadership is so much more effective than safety management.

Three Characteristics of a Safety Leader

There are three characteristics that make someone a safety leader. Think of them as the legs on a three-legged stool – if any of them are missing, the stool won't stand. Similarly, if a safety professional is lacking one of these, their leadership will be impaired.

  1. Goal-driven: You can’t lead if you’re not going anywhere. Leaders can explain their goals and vision (safety-related or otherwise). They can explain why a target is important to achieve and convince others to join in and support the cause. In other words, they can rally the troops.
  2. Protection: Leaders protect their people. Would you follow a leader who doesn't protect you? Most likely not. Why would you? No protection means no caring, and not caring means you're not building loyalty or trust. If you're not looking out for others, your team will be weakened as employees feel management does not care about them.
  3. Service: Leadership is a support role. “What can I do?” and “How can I help?” are the two main questions leaders ask their teams. Self-sacrifice is the cost of leadership. Leaders lead by example and pave the way.

Having a significant impact on safety without safety leaders will be hard. True leadership will always support safety because this is one of the three characteristics of leadership (namely, protection).

Become a Safety Leader

We can always accomplish more by working as a group, but for that to happen, we have to know that we have each other's backs. Leaders understand this dynamic and work to protect each member of the team – emotionally, professionally, and physically.

(Learn about the Three Levels of Safety.)

If you’re a safety manager, I encourage you to also be a safety leader. You will have more success in keeping people safe, and you will find work relationships more rewarding. As you look out for your employee’s and coworkers, they will look out for you.


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Written by Bryan McWhorter | Lead Safety Advisor, Author, Writer, Speaker

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Bryan McWhorter is a safety professional with eight years of experience in driving and teaching safety. Bryan gained his knowledge and experience as the safety officer and Senior Trainer for Philips Lighting. Philips is a strong health and well-being company that promotes a safety first culture.

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