Being a Leader When the System Fails

July 12, 2018 8:16 am

If you’re a member of SafetyXChange, you’re probably as passionate about workplace safety as I am. Like me, if you feel that your concerns are not addressed properly, you become frustrated and may even question the system. But, as safety leaders, it is important that we learn to keep our frustration and temporary disillusionment to ourselves. Let me explain why.


Unequal Treatment Infects the Workplace

Consider the example of workers Tom, Dick and Harry who have received very stern punishments for the same safety violation. For the sake of argument, let’s say they exposed themselves to a fall greater that 6’ without fall protection. Their penalty: dismissal.

Now here come supervisors Bob, Rick and Larry. They each commit what looks and feels like a similar violation: climbing a ladder that’s red-tagged. However, the powers-that-be do not interpret the transgression to be as serious. Accordingly, their punishment is less severe: a three-day suspension.

Pretty soon, word gets around. Your crew starts whispering amongst themselves about how Bob, Rick and Larry got special consideration because of their status. The rules, it seems, don’t apply to everyone. Morale drops dramatically. You may even notice an attitude change among some of your co-workers who are responsible for safety. The chances of being accident-free decrease.



What You Must Not Do

Has this ever happened to you? This situation can be very tough to deal with. The absolute worst thing you can do under these circumstances is to take sides against the company and vent outrage and what you perceive as the hypocrisy of the system. This is true even if you feel that an injustice was done. It is in moments like these that you must demonstrate your passion for safety, confidence in your efforts and faith in the system. It’s not simply your own sanity at stake. Leadership demands that you send the appropriate message to your workers. Never forget for a second that workers are looking to you for answers and an example to follow.


What You Must Do

That’s not to say that you can’t feel disappointment or even outrage with the system. But there’s a time and a place to express these feelings. Hopefully your company is structured in a way that enables you to handle the issue without repercussion.

My advice would be to meet with your workers and tell them simply that bad things sometimes happen to good people. Life is not always fair or as fair as you would like it to be. Most importantly, emphasize that the number one concern is, has been and always will be the safety of the worker. It is not about punishment; it is about making sure everyone goes home alive and well every single day.



There are easier and less stressful jobs than being a leader in safety. But this is the filed each of you has chosen. You therefore have a duty—to yourself and to those you protect—to find a way to make it work. And to do that, you must be prepared to handle controversy and perceived unfairness. That involves learning how to control your emotions in the interest of the greater good even in the face of circumstances