Follow the Leader: Are Your Safety Leaders Contributing To Your Safety Problems?

Sep 4, 2018

When looking at the prevalence of underreporting of safety issues within your organisation, it’s easy to shift the blame to the frontline workers who seem to be perpetuating the problem. But when you take a step back and let the research do the talking, the data suggests that the exact opposite might be happening.

You see, when we studied the prevalence of underreporting in the workplace across 9 major industries, our research found that 24% of frontline leaders and managers actively chose not to report at least one safety incident a year. To make matters worse, while the average worker chose not to report an average of 6 incidents a year, management level leaders underreported almost twice as often with an average of 11 unreported incidents per year.

So when evaluating your organisation’s safety culture, how can your workers be expected to adhere to optimal levels of operational safety if the very leaders that they look up to aren’t actively demonstrating those same behaviours?

Even if those leaders are verbalising the importance of accurately reporting safety incidents, it’s their behaviours that truly have an impact on your worker’s safety habits.

This all comes down to the impact of behavioural role modelling.

It’s What They See That Counts

The reason why it’s so important for leaders to engage in positive safety behaviours is because their actions have a roll-over effect that impacts the behaviour of workers across the entire organisation. In the eyes of individual workers, your organisation’s leaders are viewed as role models who guide their actions on how to best behave in the workplace. With that notion in mind, your leaders’ safety behaviours actually set a benchmark for what’s expected from workers within your organisation—even if they don’t actively intend to (Zohar, 2011).Regardless of the safety views that your leaders verbalise, your workers will justify the appropriateness of their actions based on how your leaders manage themselves in the workplace on a day-to-day basis (Barling et al., 2002). The act of modelling a leader’s behaviour is literally ingrained into who we are as people.

The Persuasive Power Of Authority

Over the course of civilisation, our brains have evolved to subconsciously model the choices, attitudes and beliefs of those who we perceive to be in positions of power. The reason for this is that over the years, we realised that adhering to the demands and interests of individuals in power increased the chances of us staying out of harm. On the contrary, modelling these behaviours also led to positive, favourable outcomes such as being accepted by our peers and being protected by our superiors. While the threats of today’s world aren’t as prominent as those of older civilisations, that same mental programming is still in action today in the form of behavioural role modelling. Even if your workers aren’t consciously doing it, they’re still unintentionally modelling the behaviours of their peers and superiors in the workplace. The more respect and authority they perceive a given leader to have, the higher the likelihood of them modelling that individual’s behaviours. So just think of actively evidencing positive safety behaviours as a way of setting the standard for what’s expected from workers within your organisation. Studies into the impact of leadership behaviours on workplace safety attitudes reinforce the importance of this, evidencing a strong link between the behaviour of leaders and the levels of safety participation across an organisation (Kapp, 2012). Our own study into the current State of Safety Leadership which analysed results collected from over 8212 workers and 535 leaders has also evidenced that role modelling is an area of opportunity for safety leaders. In fact, it’s one of the eight core competencies that an effective safety leader needs to demonstrate. So, the real question is this. As a manager or a frontline leader, how can you become an effective safety role-model?

You Need To Demonstrate How Much You Value It

To be an effective workplace safety role model, you need to actively demonstrate how much you value the importance of positive safety behaviours. Regardless of the circumstances at hand, you also need to consciously demonstrate these safety behaviours at all times to give your team a positive role model to follow. Some key avenues to do this include:

  • Beyond formal safety briefings, actively engage workers in informal settings to discuss their workplace safety experiences (e.g. lunch breaks)
  • Set a positive safety example at all times by being attentive at safety inductions, adhering to all safety procedures and always ensuring that you wear the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • Actively contribute to and be involved in any safety training and reviews to further evidence the value that you place on operational safety
  • Report any safety hazards or incidents as soon as they arise, regardless of the inconveniences that the process might have

Beyond all of that, the best way to leverage the power of safety role modelling is to invest in leadership development and safety leadership training to turn safety into a key corporate value that permeates every level of your organisation. By making safety one of your principle values, you can set a precedent across your entire organisation of the importance of effective safety behaviours, regardless of where you stand in the corporate hierarchy. From workers and frontline leaders to managers and executives, the responsibility of an organisation’s safety results is in the hands of every single individual. By taking personal responsibility for your workplace safety, you don’t just improve safety results for yourself.Y ou improve them for everyone around you too.


  1. Barling, J., Loughlin, C., Kelloway, E.K. (2002). Development and test of a model linking safety-specific transformational leadership and occupational safety. Journal of Applied Psychology 87, 488–496
  2. Kapp, E.A. (2012). The influence of supervisor leadership practices and perceived group safety climate on employee safety performance. Saf. Sci, 50, 1119–1124.
  3. Zohar, D. (2011). Safety climate: conceptual and measurement issues. Handbook of Occupational Health Psychology, pp. 141–164.

Sign up to our newsletter

"*" indicates required fields

By clicking submit and supplying my contact details, I agree for Sentis to contact me, including via email, to keep me informed about Sentis products and services. I understand that I can opt-out at any time. For more information, please see our Privacy Policy.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Related articles

This website uses cookies to improve your online experience and to provide site functionality. By using this website you agree to the use of cookies as outlined in our privacy policy. Learn More