Learning from leaders

29 November 2017

Paul Lalovich discusses safety culture in the nuclear industry and the role of leadership in shaping culture of safety

Before a leader can build and maintain a safety culture, they must fully understand it.

The notion of safety culture is often used in discussing the safety of highly hazardous systems, such as nuclear, where technical reliability is not the only guarantee of safety. In such systems, safety is a quality to be considered and nurtured by the social as well as technical elements of an organisation; but it is primarily shaped by its leadership. 

We can consider safety culture as the overall personality of the company. It is a set of shared values embodying the extent to which individuals take personal accountability for safety and the value placed on safety in an organisation. In the nuclear industry, the most basic positive safety behaviours include going through risk assessments for all job positions, reporting all incidents and wearing personal protective equipment. Simply put, leadership is responsible for ensuring that employees exhibit these positive safety behaviours.

In addition, we can say that safety culture is adopted when it becomes a habit, not a ‘forceful act’. That is when the organisation does not even perceive the effects of culture because organisation members consider it normal, everyday conduct. 


Leaders are the pillars of any organisation, setting cultural norms to improve the safety of the work environment and strongly influencing the often-neglected social aspects of safety. Effective leaders identify core values and objectives, define what crucial behaviours look like, communicate effectively and act in a way that promotes the required safety norms. 

To begin with, leaders are the ones who directly influence the organisation’s safety culture. Leaders analyse and improve a set of values and provide employees with a set of actions when faced with an issue.  

Psychological safety

First of all, leadership’s primary responsibility is to develop psychological safety, which is achieved by creating an environment where every person is encouraged to raise any concerns regarding any incident that may place the organisation at risk. Leaders accomplish this by showing respect and compassion towards every individual, creating a meaningful relationship of mutual respect and clearly encouraging people to approach them when facing an issue. In fact, approachable leadership is the very nucleus of psychological safety. 


Organisational fairness is another aspect of safety that is affected strongly by leadership. 

Human mistakes are bound to happen sooner or later, no matter how skilled employees are. Good safety leaders are aware of mistakes, and great leaders embrace them by discussing them in an open and constructive manner. So, leaders have the responsibility of forming a safe environment that allows staff to discuss and act in response to incidents and demonstrate the right behaviours for organisational fairness to work. Knowing how your team-members perform their duties, and how they deal with problems and stressful situations will prove to be critical for safety. And at the core of it all is effective safety communication.


Effective safety communication is respectful and open. It is most effective when used from the top down, where leadership communicates directly with supervisors who in return speak to employees. There may be barriers to upward communication, such as misconceptions that leadership is resistant to crucial feedback, fear of developing interpersonal conflict and also fear of retaliation. 

Leaders must develop an environment that accepts negative and positive feedback, and encourage upward communication. Naturally, communication from employees to leaders and between workers is essential as well. In both, supervisors play a major role.

Role of supervisors

The company’s productivity, quality, and safety culture reflect the ability of supervisors to positively influence behaviour, lead and manage regulatory compliance. Obviously, safety leaders are people too, and they cannot supervise everything by themselves. That is where middle-management must step up.

Supervisors are the direct link between upper-level management and the workforce, with a huge impact on employees’ general engagement in their job. After training, supervisors are in a unique position to implement their newly acquired skills immediately and make quick improvements. 

There are two main aspects of supervisors’ skills: counselling and coaching. Coaching leads to good performance, as well as preventing problems, while counselling assists in solving performance problems when they occur in spite of coaching. Well-trained supervisors observe safety rules, shut down unsafe work conditions, implement corrective measures in the event of an unsafe condition and provide suitable safety training. What is more, it is by observing supervisors that employees gain an understanding of the priority of safety in a company, and supervisors subsequently set the expectations for safety efforts. Supervisors also provide valuable feedback when it comes to balancing workload.

By definition, workload means employees have a duty to accomplish a specific task within a particular time. If psychological safety has been established, employees will not hesitate to approach the leadership when faced with stressful workloads that exceed their ability to accomplish the assigned task. But there are qualitative and quantitative workloads. The former occurs when employees feel unable to accomplish a specific task, or when the potential or skills of the workforce are not employed in the assigned task. The latter happens when too many tasks are allocated to the workers. It is up to leadership and supervisors to balance the workload, with employees’ psychological well-being in mind. 

In the modern workplace, the well-being of employees is an increasingly important consideration that ultimately is concerned with personal happiness. That is, feeling good and working healthily and safely. Safety culture is intertwined with employee well-being and, generally, when an organisation involves employees in the culture and future of the company, it makes them feel engaged and offers a sense of purpose. An organisation with a highly developed safety culture fosters greater collaboration and communication across all levels of the company, greatly increasing employee engagement.

Employee engagement

Engaging employees throughout the organisation creates a culture where there are long periods without incidents or injuries. Employees who are engaged have higher chances of being absorbed and involved in their work, whereas they are more likely to be less focused on their work and make mistakes when they are not engaged. Employee engagement has significant implications, as it has been estimated that up to 70% of all workplace accidents are the result of unsafe behaviours. The most engaged companies have far fewer incidents than less engaged organisations. Clearly, employee engagement motivates employees to work safely.

Employee empowerment means granting workers the skill, freedom, and authority to adapt and respond in real time with effective solutions that assist the normal operation of the business. Leadership must share power, information and resources to enable employees to deal with problems effectively. What might interest investors, is that organisations with highly empowered members produce far greater revenue. Employees who are proud of their organisation demonstrate are more satisfied and engaged in their work, which goes hand in hand with increased productivity and profit, less turnover, and better teamwork.

The human cost of safety cannot be measured easily. So leaders must communicate positively, recognise, trust and engage their employees in creating a proactive workforce in order to reduce safety incidents, improve performance and help the organisation grow. A good safety climate can be achieved when safety leaders demonstrate a strong commitment, depict positive examples and motivate workers. 

Sustaining safety ideals over an extended period will instil the value of safety into every member of an organisation. By employing quantifiable elements such as communication, employee empowerment and engagement, and supervision, and by balancing the workload, together we can create an incident-free workplace.  

About the Author

Paul Lalovich is an Organisational Effectiveness Consultant working at Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation in Abu Dhabi. 


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