Safety Leadership – nudges, shadows and the value of paranoia

Safety Leadership – nudges, shadows and the value of paranoia

The Article “Safety Leadership – Cast no Shadow”, by Dr Tim Marsh in a recent edition of IOSH’s official magazine Safety and Health Practitioner was just what I needed last month to hang a few thoughts of my own on.


safety leadership nudges Nudges are things you can do in safety leadership that gain attention, prick consciences, focus thoughts, exude expectations, alert people. They demonstrate standards, keep people on their toes. I think the key way in which they work is they are not talking down to us. The way they address us is at a whispering, rather chummy level. They are things that we find we have noticed, as opposed to something directed straight at us. Examples: The fly printed into the ceramics in men’s urinals that apparently we are unable to resist and that therefore dramatically reduce splashes and drips. Marsh also mentions the little innocent question “Have you remembered everything?” at the end of our tax returns. That gathers revenue because so many of us say “OK, OK maybe there WAS one thing I could have owned up to”.


safety leadership shadowsShadows in safety leadership are messages people receive that reveal the communicator’s real priorities. In short, things we hear that are transparent, or token messages, or mixed messages, conflicting priorities, uncommitted attitudes or just plain hollow. They are messages that leave the receivers knowing they might as well carry on the same as before, because nothing will actually change.


Clearly, the opposite of mindfulness is mindlessness. In previous articles, and blogs, I have written about how sometimes less is more, how employees should be encouraged to make good risk decisions. In short, mindfulness is not relying on the boss, the guards, the equipment or even your mates. It’s about taking responsibility and being consistently ready to avoid the unknown and untested. For safety leadership, it’s about asking the right questions, being a bit paranoid and watching out for “pockets of vulnerability”. So, let’s illustrate Nudges, Shadows and Mindfulness. A few of the examples are taken from the article, but I have thrown in a number of my own:

Safety Leadership Nudges

  • “And they finished the job?” Compare that with: “And they still didn’t stop the job?”
  • “Do it safely but do it by Friday”Compare that with: “Do it by Friday but do it safely”
  • Clean workplaces with everything put away – and keeping it that way.
  • Managers who follow up and embed training.
  • Rewarding and acknowledging good safety performance and ideas.
  • Fixing safety issues visibly and fast.
  • Walking “back of house” and asking questions.
  • Sending back an accident investigation and asking for a better job.
  • Attending safety meetings and making it clear what you expect.

Safety Leadership Shadows

  • “Safety is Number 1, but we have to finish the rest of the meeting.” To get the meaning of that, compare it with: “I really love you but …”
  • “I don’t need to wear PPE because I’m just passing through”.
  • Failure to acknowledge good behaviour and ideas.
  • Denying there is a problem.
  • Not addressing concerns or using cheap, unworkable solutions.
  • Regurgitating platitudes.

We need to set and maintain standards, lead by example, take an interest, never walk past something wrong, ask searching questions, listen to the answers, never be complacent.


Example Mindfulness (Looking for pockets of vulnerability).

  • safety leadership mindfulnessLook for urgencies, priorities, changes, delays, difficulties, changed routines, absence of process.
  • “Follow the Money” – Vulnerabilities when spending or cutting costs, making new developments.
  • Be a little paranoid – “How can I be sure”.
  • Do people have a lack of credibility/intensity around H&S?
  • Do the people writing procedures and processes have the authority to implement? Have they consulted with the users? Do the users believe/approve the methods?
  • Are people making assumptions?
  • Have solutions been tested?
  • Who, how often is monitoring the workplace and in what way? Who checks the checker?
  • Is bad news being repressed?
  • Are we taking things at face value?
  • Are we ignoring short cuts and are people breaking the rules?
  • Do we say one thing and mean another?
  • Are we really listening to people?
  • Do we ask “What if?”
  • Are we creating and adopting new ideas?

Do we really believe “We’ve got safety sorted”? Is that an indicator of complacency? In summary, we need to set and maintain standards, do safety leadership by example, take an interest, never walk past something wrong, ask searching questions, listen to the answers, never be complacent. In fact, be a bit paranoid. It may be possible to delay the inevitable indefinitely.

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