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Safety Leadership: Are You Walking Down?

“Walk-down” – just what does that phrase mean?  According to the Urban Dictionary, it means to “get out of the car and go on foot.”   Other definitions include “going down a street on foot”, “going further than ever before.”  These definitions imply proximity – getting closer by going on foot.

Managers and supervisors are assigned the task of walking down the workplace to identify hazards with the intent of getting a closer look.  There are many reasons for walk-downs – start-up inspections, required maintenance inspections, and the more frequent plant or site walk-through by management or supervisors to see how things are going and to identify hazards that may have been introduced to the work area. Many of these walk-downs become fly-bys because of all the other duties assigned.  Taking time to identify hazards during a walk-through is a great time to practice leadership.

It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. – Henry David Thoreau 

Seeing is Believing 

Admit it.  Many managers and supervisors don’t really know what to look for.  During our Hazard Recognition and Control Workshop our goal is to educate everyone so that they can “see” what matters.  Leaders should always make sure that they enlist the help of an experienced employee who knows what to look for in the workplace.  In addition taking a less experienced person along or someone from a different craft or job can be very insightful.

The main reason leaders are assigned the task of walking down the workplace they are given responsibility for is to create a safer workplace.  If walk-downs become a task that you dread or think it is a waste of time you are very short-sighted and cannot see the big picture.

The Benefit Package

When done correctly, the benefits of managers and supervisors conducting walk-downs can be huge.  Consider what you will learn from those who go with you on each walk-down.  Some of your best employees have never been asked by a leader to join them for this task.  Imagine if you’d been asked by a leader to participate in a walk-down when you were new to your job or organization or later when you were one of the ‘experts’.

Including a couple of employees in walk-downs has a number of organizational benefits:

  • The manager or supervisor will become better acquainted with one another.
  • The employees will gain from being involved in the activity both as an ‘expert’ and as a ‘learner’.
  • It gives the employees an opportunity to ask questions and interaction with a leader they may encounter only infrequently.
  • This is an opportunity for employees and a manager or supervisor to get their eyes on the same things at the same time.
  • This may be a time to do some problem solving together.

During this time you and your employee will begin to gain respect for each other and mutual respect typically turns to trust.  And, you’ll up your game with the employees because they will know you truly care about their safety – you’ll go way past “lip-service” – another way to build trust.

Gaining the trust of your employees is paramount to a successful and sustainable safety culture.  Trust will also increase personal responsibility and accountability which will ultimately lead to higher quality products and production.

Overcome the Road-blocks to Walk-Downs

So, why isn’t this a typical workplace practice?  The reason is likely a four-letter word – time.  Think about replacing that word with a longer one – priority.  Other roadblocks may include apathy, on the part of supervisors and employees or the ease of cancelling a scheduled walk-down.  Get over these barriers!  The benefits of ‘joint walk-downs’ is significant and can outweigh the benefits of many other activities.

In the end, the walk-down can be valuable for managers and supervisors if they improve their approach to conducting them.  The result of improved leadership to the frontline will be a workplace where it is difficult to get hurt.

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Carl Potter is a Certified Safety Professional who speaks to organizations that want to improve the safety leadership of their supervisors and managers.  He is the author of Conquest for Safety: Leadership Required which is available at www.safetybooks.com

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