What does it mean to be a safety leader?

Martha Michels

Martha Michels

Fermilab cannot achieve its world-class science goals without world-class leaders. Some of us have specific leadership roles as a manager or supervisor, and some of us have a specific skill that’s needed. No matter your role, every one of us can demonstrate safety leadership. To be a safety leader means you are genuinely committed to keeping yourself and your colleagues safe; you truly appreciate and work to protect the environment; and you double-check your work to catch mistakes.

Fermilab has a strong safety program thanks to many safety leaders who are committed to continual improvement. As a lab we learn from each unwanted event (both here and elsewhere) so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes. Sometimes this can feel like we are scrutinizing minor occurrences, and sometimes it can feel uncomfortable to shine a light on a situation. Strong leaders in these moments work to understand exactly what happened and the context of the decisions that were made in order to identify and strengthen our latent organizational weaknesses.

Through human performance improvement, known as HPI, we understand that, as humans, we are fallible and predictable. But making the effort to understand our mistakes often reveals that, many times, we set ourselves up to make mistakes. Confusing procedures, unclear instructions, assumptions and lack of planning are all organizational weaknesses that can bite us (and have) with an injury or major quality flaw.

Safety leaders show a commitment to following policies, procedures and training. However, safety leadership is more than compliance. Safety leaders influence those policies, procedures and trainings, and thus the culture of the lab. They plan work carefully, and they demonstrate leadership by learning from their own and others’ mistakes, maintaining a questioning attitude and coaching others to do the same.

Every moment is an opportunity to be a safety leader. In this moment, will you step up and lead?

Martha Michels is the Fermilab chief safety officer.