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What's the Difference Between Safety Leadership and Safety Management?

By Karoly Ban Matei | Last updated: July 20, 2021
Key Takeaways

Safety management and safety leadership are both essential to driving safety in an organization, but they differ in important ways.

Caption: Personnel going through a checklist Source: Yozayo / iStock

The occupational health and safety literature is dominated by titles that refer to safety leadership or safety management. In recent years, however, we've seen a growing emphasis on safety leadership specifically. This is on par with other disciplines where leadership has begun overshadowing management as the purported solution to all organizational problems.

I have to confess that I've been infatuated with the concept of leadership. When I need a label, I prefer to think of myself as a leader rather than a manager.

But is there really a major difference between the two? If so, are they mutually exclusive? Is it better to lead safety or manage safety? Should we really prefer one over the other?

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In this article, I'll attempt to define both concepts, show how they diverge, and provide a subjective answer to those questions.

Safety Management

Safety management takes a scientific approach to safety. It relies on compliance with legislative requirements and sets of pre-defined routines that have been demonstrated to reduce risks. It is well-regimented and even somewhat authoritarian in character.

It focuses on equipment safety and developing skills required to execute specific tasks safely and, overall, consistency and risk reduction.

What Does Safety Management Oversee?

Rules and regulations, safe work practices and procedures, monitoring the completion of required safety documentation, and delivering safety and competency training are generally the exclusive purview of the safety department.

From this perspective, we can say that safety management is the work of specialized safety personnel. The company CEO, the general manager, or the quality clerk don't participate in managing safety, even peripherally.

(Find out How to Use Standard Work Instructions to Improve Workplace Safety)

When Is Safety Management Beneficial?

Safety management is well entrenched in every organization. While it's often regarded as boring or unproductive by those outside the safety field, the reality is that our regulatory system requires each organization to maintain a more or less standard health and safety management system. This requires, among others:

  • Completing field level hazard assessments at reasonably practicable intervals
  • Holding safety meetings, toolbox talks, and committee meetings at established frequencies
  • Providing adequate training to every employee
  • Conducting job hazard assessments for all high-risk tasks and implementing adequate controls to minimize risk
  • Performing maintenance and inspections at intervals prescribed by regulations or the organization itself
  • Developing emergency response plans for foreseeable events and testing them periodically
  • Analyzing and investigating all accidents
  • Recording all of the activities listed above and auditing the system for compliance
It should be noted that these activities are not progressive. They will only help maintain compliance but won't be helpful when responding to a crisis situation or when a change in direction is needed. As such, managing safety is the most appropriate approach for normal operating conditions.

Safety Leadership

Unlike management, safety leadership is more of an art than a science. It's personal, fluid, and continuously evolving. It leverages existing human relationships and psychological tendencies to advance safety to the next level.

Safety leadership requires the vision to advance safety in the workplace (characterized by less frequent and less severe injuries and illnesses) and the ability to spark and support change within the organization.

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Safety leadership is focused less on compliance and more on employee engagement. It requires dynamism and creativity. While the ultimate goal is to reduce risk, leadership is in and of itself a risk-taking activity, involving a willingness to experiment and try new solutions.

Leadership is inherently connected to change. Leading safety means finding inefficiencies in the system and motivating employers and personnel to move beyond them.

(Learn about The Importance of Employee Engagement and Its Impact on Your Bottom Line)

What Does Safety Leadership Oversee?

Safety leadership isn't necessarily the safety department's job. In fact, it's not strictly tied to a title, nor is it a regimented discipline.

As such, both safety professionals and people who don't hold a safety position but do have authority within the organization can be safety leaders. The CEO, the general manager, and anyone else with influence can and should lead safety.

While safety management is more about the processes that ensure a safer workplace, leadership is about the vision and core values. Crafting, communicating, and reinforcing these is the task of the executive team.

(Learn more in Building a Strong and Resilient Safety Culture Starts with the C-Suite)

When Is Safety Leadership Beneficial?

Safety leadership is about the organization’s culture and making sure it is conducive to safety. It communicates the importance of safety and demonstrates this importance through organizational decisions, resource allocation, and responses to safety failure.

The safety vision in most organizations is reducible to minimizing the frequency and severity of accidents and injuries, as well as ensuring a work environment that is conducive to good mental health.

(Learn more about Mental Health and Suicide Prevention in the Construction Industry)

Improvements are generally supported by a program aimed at driving change. Safety leadership is required whenever a new health and safety program is needed. For instance, when organizations merge, when the executive team affirms a need to improve the organization's safety peformance, or when migrating safety procedures from a paper-based system to an electronic one.

But while safety leadership is required for planned change, it is absolutely crucial during times of unplanned change. Leadership skills can provide a necessary safety recalibration after a fatality, severe injury, or failed audit.

Other Differences Between Management and Leadership

Another way to parse the difference between safety managers and safety leaders is to compare what they actually do.

This table lists some of the key tasks managers and leaders tend to perform.

Managing Safety
Leading Safety
Day by day administration of the health and safety programImagining new ways to integrate safety with other departments
Maintaining safety databases, such as safety data sheetsDeveloping programs to foster greater engagement
Monitoring compliance through inspections, audits, and other proceduresInspiring safer behavior by painting an attractive vision for a safer workplace
Replicating successful acts and processes, ensuring that what has worked well will continue to be doneCommunicating the need for change and preparing the team to adopt new systems when needed
Developing safe work practices and proceduresLeading by example
Ensuring that employees receive adequate training
Assessing and controlling hazards


Conclusions

One way to summarize all of this is to say that safety management looks to past successes and attempts to repeat them. Safety leadership, on the other hand, is forward looking.

Despite that difference, both concepts are closely related and sometimes overlap. They are also complementary. Both are required for an organization to function safely.

Still, it's important to understand the distinction to ensure that both of them are present. You need safety management to ensure compliance and ongoing safe work processes. But you also need safety leadership to push for continued progress. Cultivating and encouraging both will help you create the safest organization you can.

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Written by Karoly Ban Matei | HR and Safety Manager

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Karoly has worked at a senior level (both as an employee and a contractor) for organizations in the construction and manufacturing industries. He has a passion for developing and improving health and safety programs.

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