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Driving Safety Leadership through Small Steps and Goal Alignment with Dr. Kevin Kelloway

Driving Safety Leadership through Small Steps and Goal Alignment with Dr. Kevin Kelloway



“Safety leadership is a lot like the weather, everybody talks about it, nobody does anything about it,” says Dr. Kevin Kelloway. Kevin shares pragmatic and actionable ideas that can help every leader become a better safety leader. Based on his research, he encourages leaders to track and implement small daily improvements in 5 themes that all successful safety leaders demonstrate: Speaking about safety, Acting Safely, Focusing on Safety, Engaging others in Safety, and Recognizing safety.

This must-listen episode will make your New Year’s safety resolutions a breeze!


Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and wellbeing of their people first. Great companies, ubiquitously, have safe yet productive operations. For those companies, safety is an investment, not a cost. For the C-suite. It’s a real topic of daily focus. This is The Safety Guru with your host, Eric Michrowski, a globally recognized Ops, safety guru, public speaker, and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy success story begins now. 

Hi, and welcome to the Safety Guru today. I’m very excited to have with me Kevin Kelloway. He’s a fantastic researcher, speaker and University Professor at St. Mary’s in the space of occupational health and psychology at St. Mary’s. He has key roles. He’ll talk about it very shortly with a CN research facility there. So, Kevin, welcome to the show. Really excited to have you with me. You’ve got some fantastic research on the leadership side of safety so important, but maybe to get started, tell me a little bit about your journey and how you got into this passion for safety. 

Sure. Okay. Well, thank you, Eric. It’s a pleasure to be here. How did I get into safety? It’s funny. There’s a joke amongst researchers that we research things that are of some sort of personal relevance to us, right? Yeah. I always go back to I grew up in a coal-mining town, and if you live in a coal-mining town, we’re very much a single industry town dominated by a coal mine. And if you grow up in that environment, you become very sensitized to issues of safety, of course, because when I was a kid and in school, there were several major sorts of disasters that just highlighted the role of safety. And then I went on in my studies, I sort of put that away and didn’t think about it too much more until I guess, my first job as a Professor, I was doing research. I did research mainly on stress. And I worked with labor unions. And there was a very prominent Union researcher, guy named Mike Gordon from the States. And I heard him give a talk once saying if researchers supported unions, what they should really do is look at collective agreements, use that as a guide. 

Interesting research, the kinds of things that unions are interested in. Of course, safety is a big one. And then I had a student who was interested in safety who’s now doctor territory. And for her master’s thesis, she did a project on safety. And the striking finding for me in her project was that when you look at we were looking at what predicted whether people became involved in safety programs and things like that. And the strongest predictor of their perception of risk and whether they got involved was actually their perception of leaders. 

And that was even much stronger than their perception of their own accident history. People had accidents had injuries at the workplace, they’d be more likely to see this risky, more likely to get involved in safety. But a much stronger effect was if I thought my supervisor was interested in safety, then I was much more likely to get involved in safety. 

And think about, wow, how powerful is this that it even sort of overwrites your own experience? 

That’s incredible. And I’m assuming the experience as well of those around you. The role of that supervisor is really essential. In other words, and the leaders. 

Right. And your co-workers. So, we’re very much guided by the people around us. And as we’ve gone on with research focusing specifically on leaders, the truism I always use in giving talks on this and doing leadership training is if my boss cares about safety, then I care. 

Right. And if my boss doesn’t care about safety, I don’t care either. 

Interesting. So that gets a great segue into a lot of the work you’ve done around leadership. And when we first spoke, you had great concepts around what is really a leadership model for safety. What are the key elements you want to see? Can you share maybe a little bit more in terms of what that looks like? 

Yeah, this is key. I think. I always say the problem with safety leadership is it’s a lot like the weather. Everybody talks about it. Nobody does anything about it. That was true for a long time. I go to conferences and professional meetings and things like that, and people would be talking about safety leadership, but only in the most generic way. Well, it’s important to be a safety leader. 

Right. And it’s your obligation to be a safety leader. And safety leaders get better outcomes and things like that. And then you say, well, what is a safety leader? What are you talking about? What do you want me to do as a leader? And I was fortunate enough to our local workers compensation group had a leadership conference, and they invited speakers, and they had a neat idea. They invited people who they know from their records have had a dramatic impact on safety. So, they invited leaders from different organizations that have changed in some sense their safety culture and asked them to come and basically tell us what they did. So, we had leaders who had reduced their incident rate by 80%. And when you see that biggest change, you say, well, what are you doing that leads to that. So, they also invited me, but they just wanted me to talk. They wanted me to take basically. So, my job was to sit there and listen for two days and then try to summarize that all in a final session. And it was fascinating because when I listened to leader after leader from all kinds of industries talking about what they did, I realized they’re really talking about the same things. 

So, we formulated that in a model we call the Safer leadership model. And the attempt is to identify the behaviors that result in better safety outcomes. So Safer is an acronym and it stands for leaders to speak about safety. 

Sure. Makes sense, right? 

First, minimal entry point. You have to be talking about safety. And if you don’t talk about safety, people will assume it’s not important.

Sure. Because if you’re a leader in an organization, you talk about what’s important. So, leaders talk about customer service, and they talk about productivity, and they talk about operational issues. If they don’t talk about safety, they’re really sending a message saying it’s not important makes sense. So, leaders have to act safely. So, they have to be a model themselves of what you want to see. If you want people to wear PPE, you better be wearing it too. People are watching what you do. So, we say you have to speak about it. You have to act; you have to focus on safety. So, I think a big problem in organizations is we tend to use safety as a program or a short-term intervention. During NAOSH week, we’ll have a safety speaker, and we’ll have a couple of safety events, and we’ll give away some safety teams merchandise and then that’s it for another year. That’s not how it works. Very clear from the speakers as they were talking that safety is an ongoing thing. You have to build it into your systems and your processes and your operations. So, speak, act, focus. You have to engage others in safety. 

Makes sense. We did a project for about five years. I did a safety project in China. And every year I would go over, and we worked with various industries, and one of them was the construction industry. And the model at the time for these big high rises. When you landed in Beijing, all you saw was construction all over the place. And when you went to these workplaces, their model for safety is there would be one safety officer and there would be hundreds of employees on site. And that safety officer’s job was to be responsible for safety. 

That won’t work. 

And if something bad happened, then they fired. That safety cannot possibly work, right? You cannot possibly supervise that many people or monitor what they’re doing. So, you really need to get other people involved and especially the people doing the work. We say it all the time. Nobody knows the job as well as the people doing it. And that can be really hard for leaders to accept because sometimes they’ve done that job. And they said, well, I did that for 20 years. I know all about it. You know about it when you did it, and now five years later, you’re doing something else and maybe that job has changed. So, we really need to get other people involved and to get ideas from everybody and engage the entire workforce. And then last but not least, we talk about the role of recognition. We need to tell people when they’re doing a good job when they’re doing things. And safety tends to be very punitive in a sense. Right. So that we have safety officers or leaders who walk around the workplace, and if you’re not wearing the PPE or you’re lifting improperly, they’ll call you on it. 

And there might be discipline involved or something like that. But if you’re actually doing all the right things, then you’ll never hear about it. 

Right. And that sets up this very weird dynamic. Right. So, I only know if I’m doing the right thing if nobody’s talking to me. 

Not a good one at all. 

Yeah. So, we said leaders, quite frankly, single best thing you can do as a leader in any context is tell three to five people every day they’re doing a good job. And that’s just as true in safety. And it means as a leader, you have to get out of your office and go around the workplace and watch for people doing a good job. And sometimes it’s hard to see because it fades in the background. You see the mistake. Sure, you don’t see the people doing things right, but we need to find the people who are doing the right things and tell them about it. And when I say tell them I don’t need a complicated reward system or anything like that, I just need leaders going up to somebody who said, I saw what you’re doing, I see that you’re wearing your PPE. I saw the way you did that lift. That’s a great job. Thank you. That’s all you need. 

I love the simplicity of the behaviors you’re talking about. The one that really connects with me right now is the one I’m focusing on safety, because too often what I see is one organization where the executive, the CEO talk about safety. They connect with their teams. They share the expectation. They put the focus on a very regular basis, that safety is how we do business. And then you’ll see another same industry, different organization. And the CEO only gets involved when something goes wrong, and otherwise, it’s the safety’s responsibility. They’re not driving the strategy around safety like they’re driving the strategy around everything else. And generally, outcomes follow that. 

A lot of organizations, safety sits outside our normal processes. So, there’s the way we do our jobs, and then there’s safety over here, and we bring it in when we need it sort of thing. And we know that model doesn’t work back to when the Deepwater Horizon blew up in the Gulf. And I remember reading reports later that year that the company that operated that platform, their executives were getting bonuses for having the best years ever. 

Yes. And you say, how does that happen right now between what’s going on in running our business and then how we manage safety? 


The leaders that we’re speaking at conference made it really clear you have to start embedding safety into your systems. 

Yeah. Which makes sense. 

As a leader, you shouldn’t be getting bonuses and your performance pay and all that stuff. If your safety record is abysmal. 

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I love that the behaviors you have are very tangible. It’s very easy, not complicated to understand, am I doing this? Am I not? I don’t need to read a thesis to understand, am I recognizing you said three to five people? Am I putting the right level of focus? Am I engaging people? These are very simple things. The other part is, as I understand from our part of the conversation, you really drive around getting into observable behaviors. So, you cascade this element so I can check to see if you’re doing and daily reflections. Tell me more about those topics, because I think those are areas I’ve played with and definitely seen huge results. And I love this topic. 

Yeah. So safer is sort of the model is the content of safety. 

Sure. And then we had to think about, well, how do you change people’s behavior? And I really draw a lot on my mentor, Julian Barling at Queens University, and we did a lot of leadership training together in the 90s, early 2000s. And one of the things he emphasized is the notion of having a very specific behavioral goal. Three people a day, they’re doing a good job, speak about safety four times a day, something very precise like that. And when it’s that precise and that observable, then it builds in a chance for you to review every day. I tell leaders, if you’re working eight to four, then at 02:00 in the afternoon, I want you to review that checklist say, did I speak about safety four times this day? And I purposely say 02:00, because then if you haven’t done it yet, you still have 2 hours. So, it’s recognizing that doing anything differently, you know, getting better at safety leadership or getting better at anything requires really sort of mindful reflection and monitoring. It doesn’t just happen. Right. It’s not a magic process. So, we encourage leaders to set very specific goals. I’m going to talk about safety four times a day and then review every day. 

Did I do it four times today or not? It’s a simple yes, no question. 

Right. And if you didn’t do it, then go out and try to hit your four. And if you did do it, then you’re good for today. Move on to tomorrow, especially New Year’s. Everybody sets resolutions, people buy Fitbits or whatever. And they set up to 1000 steps a day. 

Yes. Now, I don’t know if you know this, but that is absolute magic. And there is nothing magical about 10,000 steps. It’s actually a mistranslation. You probably don’t need 100 steps. But if you set that goal, everyone I’ve ever talked to has done this has found themselves at 11:00 at night walking up and down their hallway, the last steps. So, they achieved the goal for the day, right. 

Right. And it’s the power of having that very specific number coupled with that review process, and it makes it much more likely that you’re going to do that behavior and do it consistently every day. 

I think it’s a really good analogy. And there’s a degree of I’m measuring but you’re not measuring something that could drive the wrong behavior, like putting a goal on an injury rate or putting a goal on something that could drive or even observations that could drive something. That’s not what we intended, but rather things that will do no harm. Right. There’s no harm if you go recognize five people today for something they did around safety. 

Yes. And a lot of what we do in safety can have sort of unintended consequences. A lot of organizations, for example, if you drive a vehicle and you have an accident, then they do a mandatory drug test. 

Yes. And that sounds like a very sensible policy. But if you talk to employees, what happens a lot in practice is they have a minor accident, they don’t report it and they don’t report it now because they don’t want the mandatory drug tests. 

Right. So, we’ve actually driven the incidents. We’re trying to reduce we haven’t reduced them. We’ve just driven them underground. So, we don’t know about them. 

In those goals, you’re really sharing ideas that I self-reflect, and I set those goals. Have you had some success around cascading goals, working with a leader and cascading and any guidance around this since we’re talking about New Year’s resolution and some ideas around goals and how do you drive it? Is there some value in driving this, or is this really something where you’ve seen the most profound effect when it’s a personalized commitment? 

In doing leadership training in organizations. One of the things I’ve noticed, like anybody, we’ve had successes and failures in doing training. And the characteristic of when it’s been a real success in organizations and we’ve seen major changes is when everybody is involved, from the top leader down to the front-line supervisor, they’re all in the training, they’re all making goals. The senior leaders are sitting in on the training as well and setting goals. And in my favorite example, the VP in charge showed up to every session to say to the group of leaders there, this is what we’re doing, right? This is what we’re doing from now on. This is the way we’re going to do this. This is not a passing fed. As long as I’m here, this is what we’re doing. And in session, he sat in just as a participant. But in every session, one of the senior leaders was there to deliver that same message. That’s when it seems to have real power and you’re changing the culture of the workplace, I think you could have a more limited effect individually if I decide just this is something I’m going to take on. 

I heard this podcast. There are some interesting ideas. I’m going to try it out. You’ll have an effect on the people in your immediate vicinity, but it’s when every leader in an organization is taking it on. That’s when you start to see really large-scale change. 

And it really links back to small changes every day. Tiny habits. Whichever book you pick up those talks about small habits you implement, like the Fitbit is try to I just had that experience this morning because my Apple Watch was telling me I hit a certain goal. So, it’s time to up my goal for next week from an activity and calorie standpoint. 

Yes, exactly. Yeah. So that monitoring that measurement that a lot of people are doing now around fitness, really, it does have a motivational effect, just having that goal. Right. And it makes it more likely to do the behavior as a result of that. That’s going to have some downstream effects in terms of what safety in your workplace actually looks like. 

So, I think this is a great topic for leaders. Listening into the show is really lovely, safer model just in terms of what are the behaviors that I should be trying to demonstrate on a regular basis and really setting those small goals and checking in every day. I used to say check in every week if you’re too busy. And I had a similar example where somebody set a goal for themselves and for them. It was every Thursday at the end of the day, they put in their calendar saying, I’ll check how many recognitions I’ve given around safety. And if I’m not satisfied with that number, I’m going to go make it up on Friday. But I think your idea of everyday at 02:00 P.m. Is even better because it’s that frequency is a check-in of how am I doing and how do I close that goal? So great concept. 

And much like you and your Apple Watch, we say to leaders, I can give you the behavior recognize other people for safety, you have to pick the number because depending on your personality, it might seem like an incredibly hard thing to do to recognize one person. 

Maybe that’s so far out of your comfort zone, but that is incredible. Well, okay, let’s start with one then. If you say to me, well, I already recognized four people a day, well, then let’s make it five people a day. Or let’s switch our focus to another goal that you can add to that. 

We try to work with leaders wherever they are. We don’t set some impossible standards. You have to go run a marathon. Say, okay, well, let’s just say we’re going to start with 30 minutes of walking today. 

Sure. Exactly.  

Take people from where they are. And I like it because it ties back to the acronym. We’re not trying to make you the safest leader, just safer. Just a little more than you are now. Baby steps. And I said, that’s enough. 

I love the simplicity. I love how easily it can be action. And I love how it gives you the reminder. And there’s so many parallels you can take from a fitness standpoint. They really show that that’s a good model to drive forward. I’d love to Pivot. I think you’ve shared some great ideas, very actionable ones, around leadership. I’d love to touch on really the link between mental well-being and safety. So, we’ve had a few guests talk about those topics. What tends to happen in a lot of organizations is HR looks after mental well-being, if anybody does. And then on another side of how safety a bit like you talked about before, looks out at the safety side. So, I love to hear a little bit in terms of how do we break down that silo and why should we? 

Yeah. And it’s incredible how thick those walls are. In many organizations. I’ve done quite a bit of work on the notion of a healthy workplace and improving the psychologically healthy workplace. And you almost invariably find you’re not talking to the safety people anymore, that it’s two different organizational structures that don’t talk to each other. And you start saying, well, wait a minute, this is all a piece of one thing. Sure. Right. It’s all about employee well being and keeping them both safe and healthy and trying to contribute to their safety and well-being. And the notion that we separated just doesn’t make sense to me. And in some cases, I think safety people, because they work in that space of trying to change behaviors, are used to the topic, and should be taking on more health-oriented things as well. And frankly, I think there’s some resistance there that people want to deal with what they know about. Sure. And I think that’s a barrier that we have to work on. But also segmenting health and safety just doesn’t seem to work for me. So, we get this move toward a, you know, greater attention to mental health in the workplace. 

And I think one of the effects of segmenting it this way is we have tended in that mental health space to focus on trying to change individuals. So, we teach people to manage their stress, and we do lunchtime, yoga, or mindfulness or whatever we do. But again, it’s what I just said doesn’t work in terms of safety. It doesn’t work to have these programs that are sporadic. We need real change in the workplace. I think the same is true in mental health and in particular organizations should be looking at, again, to draw on safety language. What are the root causes of mental ill-health that are in the workplace? What is the workplace doing to contribute to somebody’s lack of well-being, and how can we fix that? So, stop trying to change individuals, but focus more on the place conditions. 

The system, the context in which people are operating. Have you seen organizations that have broken down those silos effectively that have found ways used to bring the linkage because we’ve had some guest speakers even on the show talking about how if I’m not well from a mental wellbeing standpoint, I’m also more prone to getting injured that day because I may not have as much focus on the task at hand and things of that nature. So really speaking about how those two items are really intertwined, interrelated that even if you want to improve safety performance, you probably also in some industries, particularly need to start looking at mental well-being as well. 

Yeah. And Janelle, at least from the research literature, that’s almost a new recognition. The idea that your mental health and those traditional metrics of incidents or injuries at work are interrelated. So, a colleague of mine, Nick Turner at the University of Calgary, in the business school there, he’s done some really interesting work looking at the relationship between mental health and safety outcomes, and the data suggests that they are there. 

So, we can look at both sides of that. If people are getting injured, they’re more than likely to be anxious or depressed. Certainly, anyone who works in the return to the workspace will tell you somebody injures their back, say it on the job site, and then can’t go back to their regular job. At least half of what’s going to keep them off is the depression resulting from that. 

If you have an injury that is life-changing in the sense that you cannot go back to the job that you knew and the job that you trained for. Not surprisingly, people get depressed about that, and that feeds into the amount of time you’re actually off work. 

Absolutely. Which makes perfect sense. What would be some of the ideas to help get the safety professionals to explore better partnerships, maybe with HR or at least better interventions that touch on both? 

Yeah. I think those walls can be so thick. I think the first step is to get those two groups talking to each other and understanding each other. Right. And I think safety brings a lot to the table in the sense that people in safety are used to analyzing risks and looking at things from a risk perspective, looking at the environment very common in safety to look around and say, well, if somebody’s going to get hurt, how are they going to get hurt? Right. Let’s identify the conditions that lead to that. I think that’s a valuable perspective to bring to the mental health arena, too. 

Right damaging people psychologically. How are we doing that? And maybe is there something better we can do, or can we stop doing that? 

Can we protect people better? 

Great. So really appreciate you coming on the show, Kevin. You’ve shared some great, really actionable ideas from a leadership standpoint and also in teams of how you drive change within the organization and then finally this is a really important topic around mental well-being and linking better connections from a safety standpoint. Thank you for taking the time to join us. If somebody wants to get in touch with you, what’s the best way to do that? 

The easiest way is I’m at St. Mary’s University. My email is Kevin Kellaway Kelloway at SMU. Ca, right? That’s the easiest way to reach me and I’m on email all the time. 

I have no way and you’ve written lots of books over the years, shared lots of ideas, do a lot of research. I really appreciate you sharing a couple of really important topics with our listeners today. Thank you. 

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Dr. E. Kevin Kelloway is the Canada Research Chair in Occupational Health Psychology and Professor of Organizational Psychology at Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

A prolific researcher he is has authored over 200 articles and chapters and authored/edited 15 books to date. His research focuses on occupational health psychology and, in particular, how leaders affect health and safety within organizations. Kevin has been elected a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, the Canadian Psychological Association, the International Association for Applied Psychology and the Society for Industrial/Organizational Psychology. In 2016 he served as President of the Canadian Psychological Association. Kevin works with both private and public sector clients on issues related to leadership, safety and HR management and is a popular speaker at conferences and corporate events.


Twitter: @ohpsychologyca