Faces of EHS, Safety Culture and Behavioral Safety

Faces of EHS: Dr. Steve Roberts on Leadership and Learning

Steve Roberts, PhD., is truly an expert in the environmental, health, and safety (EHS) field. He specializes in the design, implementation, and evaluation of behavior and people-based safety processes, the assessment of organizational culture to guide safety interventions, and understanding and reducing human error in the workplace. He has written and contributed to many books about behavior and people-based safety and other management topics.

He is the co-founder and senior partner at Safety Performance Solutions, an internationally recognized safety consulting firm specializing in People-Based Safety for organizations of all kinds.

For our latest Faces of EHS profile, we sat down with Steve to discuss how he got his start in the industry, the biggest lessons he’s learned as an EHS professional, and the future of safety culture in the workplace.

Q: How did you get your start in the field?

I got my unofficial start in the safety field as I worked various construction jobs as a student to help pay for college. Significant events include my supervisor mis-firing a nail gun as we were standing across from each other while pre-fabricating a stud wall. His nail fired directly at me, but luckily went between my torso and arm, and landed in a piece of sheetrock behind me.

In another incident, a coworker dropped a hammer, which hit me in the head, and I was not using a hard hat, while I was below him on rickety scaffolding. Having no ladder while framing a house, I was told to just build my own ladder. A week later, the ladder partially fell apart sending me hard to the ground. But what stands out as one of the riskiest things I did during that time was to climb two stories on the outside of concrete form scaffolding, and with no fall protection, grab and stabilize a large load of concrete that was suspended and swinging from a crane, so the crane operator could better dump the concrete into wall forms.

These, as well as many other similar incidents, solidified my interest in workplace safety. Therefore, when customizing my graduate school education, I knew where I wanted to target my studies.

Q: What’s your best mistake and what did you learn from it?

I’ve made many mistakes in my career. Luckily, I’ve learned valuable lessons along the way as well. Over 25 years ago as a young consultant, I assisted an organization in implementing a people-based safety process. I ensured senior leadership understood and were committed to supporting the process. I helped them create an implementation team consisting of a cross section of the organization, including members of the hourly workforce from each department and division to ensure all had a voice and a way to contribute. 

However, during the first day of employee training to ensure all understood the process and how to participate, the union president was one of the class participants and he spoke up. He said no one had explained the process to the local union, gotten their input, or buy-in. He was not pleased and regardless of the underlying principles I was teaching or the buy-in received from the other key stakeholders; this individual was not in the mindset to support the process.

It took quite a bit of effort to backtrack and get the support we needed to move forward. This situation taught me the importance of identifying key stakeholders up front and gaining buy in before moving too far along with any culture change project.

Q: How can company leaders make safety a value within their organization?

To build safety as a value within an organization, leaders need to do more than just talk about safety. What you say is not enough; what you do is most important. Of course, our behaviors such as using appropriate PPE and following safe procedures while out in the field or shop floor are important for setting a safe example. However, especially for leaders, it’s important to understand the decisions we make, especially regarding the allocation of appropriate resources to facilitate safe work, are also an important way to show what we think and how we feel about safety.

More specifically, leaders need to show that safety is a valuable outcome to invest in instead of just a cost to control, thus ensuring needed tools, equipment, personnel, and other resources not only allow, but encourage jobs to be performed safely. Organizational management systems should support safe behavior and be consistent with organizational values. Employees should be given opportunities to make valuable contributions, especially in determining, analyzing and supporting safe behavior, and leaders need to ensure the physical environment—the interaction of equipment, facilities, procedures, and people—supports and enables safe behavior.

Q: How will safety culture look in the future?

In the short term I predict continuing significant challenges for building and maintaining an ideal safety culture. Like many other key organizational positions, safety professionals are often asked to do more with less. Personnel shortages and supply chain issues causing disruptions in production schedules are even further exacerbated by COVID. In addition, for the personnel that are still on the job, live safety meetings, joint problem solving, and interpersonal communications are even more difficult due to COVID safety protocols.

I believe some of the challenges and difficulties exacerbated by COVID in the workplace, as well as society in general, also highlight the importance of mental health in addition to physical health and safety. I believe more recognition and attention the whole person, including mental health will be a continuing trend.

Longer term, I am more hopeful. For business and industry in general, there seems to be a trend back towards the importance of stakeholder capitalism. This is a is a viewpoint where corporations are oriented to serve the interests of all their stakeholders, including customers, suppliers, shareholders, local communities, and employees—which includes employee safety.

Under this system, a company’s mission is to serve the interests of all stakeholders, as opposed to only profits for shareholders, and the view that this is essential to the long-term success of any business. Therefore, proponents of stakeholder capitalism make the case that taking this perspective is a sound business decision in addition to being an ethical choice.

Therefore, longer term my hope is that these trends towards stakeholder capitalism continue. My hope is that longer term, adequate resources and focus on employee safety, employee mental health, process safety, environmental protection, and community safety will increasingly be seen as an essential part an organization’s long-term success plan.

Q: What are you most proud of?

Over the years, I can’t even count the number of times employees that have come to me after participating in one of our safety culture assessments, where they told me after working in an organization for years or sometimes even decades, that our assessment process was the first time they had actually been asked to give their opinion about the strengths, weaknesses, and the most critical areas needing safety improvement in their work area.

A lot of what I do is to systematically listen to employees at all levels of the organization and help shine a light in areas that need additional attention. What makes me feel most proud of what I do is when I’m able to help bring attention to issues that may have otherwise led to someone being injured or killed.