Instilling a culture of safety

By Bruce Huber

A few years ago, Barrick Gold Corp. was trying to determine how it could make a step-change improvement in safety performance across the company. After analyzing the various safety systems and tools in place at sites, we realized that continuing to focus on what I call the ‘technical side of safety’ might achieve some modest and regular performance improvements. However, we were never going to see dramatic improvement using this approach and further, it would take 40 years or more to approach zero injuries. We observed that the same tool being used effectively at one site had very little impact at another mine. The tool was the same; it was the people using the tool that made the difference.

We had to shift our focus to achieve a better balance between technical safety (policies, procedures, training and auditing) and the people side of safety (leading, motivating, coaching and inspiring). With the help of Jim Clemmer, a recognized leadership consultant, Barrick’s Courageous Safety Leadership program was born.

The foundation of the program is a two-day training program for every supervisory level employee and a one-day course for every worker. The course is designed around people. It is highly motivational, very inspirational and requires a lot of participation. There are roughly three hours of teaching (lecture) in the two day version. The rest of the time, the participants are engaged in workgroup or individual activities, all focused on specific people issues. When I left Barrick, more than 30,000 employees and contractors had taken this training. We experienced a 65% reduction in total recordable incidents. Everyone in the company credited Courageous Safety Leadership with changing the company culture.

We developed the vision “every person going home safe and healthy every day” believing it was possible to achieve that vision. Courageous Safety Leadership focuses on people skills, communication, openness and transparency, honesty and integrity. It is also about empowering people to speak up when things are not right as well as accepting responsibility. That sometimes means confronting people and hierarchies, rather than just “going along to get along.” Sometimes we must have the courage to do what is right regardless of the consequences to ourselves. At the same time, to encourage people to speak up, we need to create an open atmosphere and show them we will respect their opinions, listen to their ideas, and enlist their support in finding solutions.

Courageous Safety Leadership is about treating people like people, building relationships and trust, and empowering people to become part of the solution rather than remain as part of the problem. We mentioned communication. Some experts maintain 70% of communication is LISTENING. Listening is not generally a strong management trait.

We helped our supervisors understand the difference between management and leadership. Some companies treat these two as the same. We believed there was a distinct difference and achieving a balance between the two was essential.

It takes some emotional experience to drive a behavioral change. Why do people continue to use a cellphone while driving, even though it is widely known this is a very dangerous practice? It is because they do not want to lose their social contact. There is no reward for giving it up other than the intangible ‘safety.’ Unless we can communicate what is in it for them, they will not change their behavior. We have to connect emotionally with them so they “feel” the consequences of an incident. Courageous Safety Leadership is transparent and shows the terrible toll incidents and fatalities have on co-workers, families and friends. The impact of these situations reaches people on an emotional level, changes what they believe and ultimately results in a behavior change.

Safety was always in the forefront. “Safe production” became our mantra. We measured, compared and published results from each site regularly. We presented awards to sites that achieved good safety performance. We also presented awards to individuals who contributed to the safety culture. We celebrated safety achievements throughout the year. The senior leadership of the company was actively engaged in the recognition process so that employees could see safety was a priority for the organization.

When we look at companies with world-class safety performance, we see they have leaders who are personally committed and engaged. We cannot expect others to act with safety in mind if we do not model the right behaviors ourselves, both on and off the job.

While the traditional approach to safety has resulted in improvement over the years, consider that the structured method may also be one of our failings. Safety has often been about procedures and training—trying to get everyone to do the same jobs the same way, repeatedly. Fortunately, most people conform. For those who do not, the traditional approach has been harsh discipline, and that has not achieved much success.

We have to work with our employees on an individual basis, applying and delivering what they needed—not what we think they must have. This means a different approach with each of them and a lot of communication. That takes time, a precious commodity that none of us seem to have enough of. We had to commit to this leadership approach if we were going to realize a step-change improvement.

Note the reference to ‘time’ in this quote widely attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “Commitment is what transforms a promise into reality. It is the words that speak boldly of your intentions. And the actions which speak louder than the words. It is making the time when there is none. Coming through time after time after time, year after year after year. Commitment is the stuff character is made of; the power to change the face of things. It is the daily triumph of integrity over skepticism.”

When we take the time the results we want are evident. Take the time.

As part of the safety culture, Barrick also asked leaders to demonstrate ‘visible, felt leadership.’ You cannot create a safety culture by sending safety messages to the field from your office. You must be in the field, interacting with people, walking around, coaching, checking compliance, and asking questions. Your words and actions must communicate the sense of urgency around safety, as well as the vulnerability that exists around the work being done. Keep stressing the vision with a focus on caring for people—employees, contractors, suppliers—not statistics.

Go out of your way to acknowledge good safety performance. Respond to any safety incident or near miss with a “what can we learn” approach. Take immediate action to correct any substandard condition or behaviors, challenging negative attitudes or hierarchies if necessary. As managers, leaders should assess safety activities as part of performance reviews and compensation, and promote only those individuals with proven safety performance. Hold yourself and others accountable for following through on safety-related commitments. Make safety discussions part of every meeting.

Good leaders build a safety culture, maintain people’s trust, control risks and position the organization for enhanced success. We have the opportunity to improve safety performance if we have the right attitude. We must believe that we can create safe, incident-free workplaces, and we must work toward this objective. Yes, zero is possible, and we can achieve that with committed, engaged leadership in our organizations.

Huber currently serves as vice president of safety services at inthinc technology solutions ( Previously, he was the director of safety and health at Barrick Gold and was credited for implementing the company’s Courageous Safety Leadership program. In 2009, the International Society of Mine Safety Professionals recognized Huber with its Highest Degree of Safety Award.