HSE Excellence Europe

Safety Boots on the Ground

by Brian Darlington, Mondi AG, Austria, Head of HSE
Safety and Health Professionals

As safety professionals, and assuming that we want to make a difference, we need to get out of our offices and practice “safety boots on the ground”.

Obviously we all need to spend a certain amount of time in the office. However get rid of those activities that do not add any value to the drive in reducing incidents and injuries.

It is important to find the right balance between time spent in the office and time spent on the shop floor. It is on the shop floor where safety and health conversations are had, where you can assess critical controls and provide the much needed support and guidance to management, employees and contractors. Being on the shop floor contributes to a reduced number of injuries and incidents which in turn impacts positively on the demands of time placed on safety professionals and other persons.

As in war, the strategic planning takes place in the offices and meeting rooms, but the battles are fought and won by the soldiers having boots on the ground. The same applies to safety management. So, while we can’t avoid critical time spent in meetings (planning the strategy and related initiatives), we need to put our PPE gear on, and get our “safety boots on the ground”.

What safety and health professions should do more of:

Talk to people on the shop floor and listen to their concerns and suggestions to
improve the safety standards and compliance to the rules:

  • Forget about a checklist. Keep an open mind and address the high risk issues as they are identified;
  • Don’t treat all concerns with the same level of attention. Focus more on the high risk conditions that have the potential of fatal or life altering injuries. Issues with a lesser potential impact will eventually follow.
  • Get involved with the teams. Don’t only point out the issues of concern. Discuss them with the relevant persons and try and assist in finding a practical solution;
  • Forget about using a camera for everything. Sending e-mails with photographs does not always make the necessary difference. It is often more effective to get the responsible person to the area and resolve the issue in person there and then. Be part of the solution.
  • Take relevant managers and supervisors with you when walking through the areas. These present important coaching opportunities.
  • Don’t always and only focus on the concerns. Allocate some of your attention to the positive issues and provide positive feedback.
  • Always end the session with verbal feedback and agreement on the actions required

What is the role of managers

Similar to the safety and health professionals, the principle of “safety boots on the ground” also applies to management. Managers have the line responsibility to ensure safe and health workplaces are provided and work is done in a manner that does not pose a risk to the safety and health of any persons. Managers need to lead by example and practice visible leadership by also making time to be on the shop floor, discussing safety and health issues with their employees and contractors, and ensuring that all safety standards and rules are being observed.

What managers should do more of:

  • Allocate a percentage of your time to be on the shop floor , talking to employees and contractors on safety and health matters;
  • Include yourself in the safety and health audit schedules;
  • Include safety and health matters in your management meetings and allocate sufficient time to address these issues;
  • Monitor action items closed out by due date for key safety action plans (developed from incident investigations, audit reports, minutes of meetings, etc.); and
  • Ensure the management team is aligned on the safety message to prevent confusion on the shop floor.


The role of supervisors, foremen and team leaders

Supervisors, foremen and team leaders are also required to be on the shop floor, directing their respective teams. Importantly, if organisations want to develop the desired safety culture, it is critical that supervisors, foremen and team leaders spend this time on the shop floor while well aligned to the safety objectives of the company.

Supervisors, foremen and team leaders are key persons in achieving the safety objectives. They are the ones that direct and oversee the work being done… be it safely or unsafely. So it is critical that they too get their “safety boots on the ground”, to ensure that their teams are working in a safe manner and that all standards and rules are being observed.

What supervisors, foremen and team leaders should do more of:

  • Conduct critical task audits in your areas of responsibility to determine if safe operating procedures are still relevant, are understood and being adhered to;
  • Conduct regular safety toolbox talks with your teams which are value adding and specific to their working environment;Working together to make a difference
  • Limit the use of off-the-shelf communication material. Instead develop your own customize material that is more relevant to your teams;
  • Be proactive and persistent in driving the desired safety culture in your area of responsibility; and
  • Have a zero tolerance approach for non-compliance to safety rules. Remember if you drop the standard, it will become the norm and be followed by your teams.

Working together to make a difference

If managers, supervisors, foremen, team leaders, and safety and health professionals are aligned in the messaging and in their behaviour, and adopt the principle of “safety boots on the ground”, organisations will have a better chance of achieving higher standards and improved safety performances.

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