“Hey! Let’s be careful out there”

As a health and safety tutor I have to introduce myself to rooms full of students all the time. I always start by telling them that I used to work as a production supervisor in an industrial bakery near Sheffield making tea cakes, white baps and hot cross buns for Marks and Spencer’s. And then I confess that as a production supervisor I had no particular interest in health and safety. I knew that it was one of my responsibilities, because it said so in my job description, and I did do some health and safety related activities routinely; such as safety inspections. But I was not particularly interested in it and I was not proactively seeking information or advice to improve standards.

Over time, of course, things changed. I became interested. I did some training courses and I stepped on the slippery slope: a safety officer role at another factory, a NEBOSH General Certificate course, etc… I slid down the slope and I have been floundering around in a morass of health and safety ever since. Many of you will have stepped on that same slope.

Years later, as a safety manager in a different company, I came to reflect on my personal experiences as a supervisor and to wonder: why hadn’t I been especially interested in health and safety? Why was I so focused on production output and product quality (hey – it’s M&S we are talking about here)? Why didn’t health and safety feature much in my thinking?

And the answer is, I suspect, that my manager talked to me about production output on a routine basis all day, every day. Production was measure in baskets and I had to know exactly how many baskets I had produced, was producing and would produce on a minute-by-minute basis through the shift so that I could predict when each lorry could be loaded and despatched to various depots around the UK. My manager also talked to me routinely about quality. They would invite me to take a walk with them down the line and in particular to see what was coming out at the end of the oven. [Take a look yourself – this is the line in 2015. It has changed since my time, but is still recognisable]

These conversations happened twenty times or more a day. Every day.

And this is the point. My work priorities were set by my manager, not my job description. And my manager talked about production targets and quality all of the time. That was the stuff that they worried about and consequently that was the stuff that I worried about too.

I didn’t worry about health and safety because my manager didn’t appear to worry about health and safety. The truth of the matter may have been that they were tearing their hair out worrying about it; but they did not communicate that to me and so I did not see it as a priority.

So ask yourself the question: where did my manager get their priorities? The answer, of course, is from their manager. In this case the bakery manager. And where did they get their priorities from? From the General Manager who sat right at the top of the manager hierarchy at the bakery. And where did the GM get their priorities – from the Board of Directors of Northern Foods, who owned the bakery at the time.

The reason why I have been thinking about this is because I have been looking at the new Health and Safety Leadership (HSL) Excellence course recently launched by NEBOSH in conjunction with HSE.

In health and safety management circles we often refer to “management commitment and leadership” as being critical in the creation of a positive health and safety culture. But we sometimes don’t go on to explore what leadership actually means. Which is what the new HSL course is about.

Leadership is frequently described as being different to management. If you google ‘leadership v management’ you will find lots of posts about the differences. Things like:

“Leaders set aspirational aims and managers turn those into strategic objectives”;

“Leaders have followers, while managers have people who work for them”; and

“Leaders work with the heart while managers work with the head”.

Others are available…

For the purposed of the Leadership Excellence course the definition of leadership used comes from Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD):

“Leadership can be defined as the capacity to influence people, by means of personal attributes and/or behaviours, to achieve a common goal.”

This recognises that leadership can be demonstrated by people at all levels of an organisation. The NEBOSH/ HSE course is very much aimed at people in senior management positions; board members, company directors, etc.

It is possible for individuals at all levels of a management hierarchy to demonstrate leadership by their personal attributes. I have met a number of very charismatic and influential people who have worked in shop floor positions, with no formally recognised management authority, but with huge sway over their colleagues because of their personal attributes.

On reflection it is entirely possible that I could have demonstrated leadership as a production supervisor in that bakery. But I suspect that I lacked the knowledge, experience, skills and the personality characteristics necessary. I am not a leader.

I have, however, witnessed some fantastic examples of individual managers demonstrating leadership to their staff; both “talking the talk” and “walking the walk”.

For example, I remember being in an engineering manager’s office with a bunch of mechanical engineers (all men) when their new manager did a team briefing and finished with:

“Just let me say this; I don’t know how you’ve done things in the past here under old management.

But under me there‘s only one way and that’s the safe way.

I don’t ever want to have to stand on your front door step and tell your Mrs that you’re not coming home tonight.

Do you understand?

Are we OK?

Alright off you go then.”

Or the Factory Manager who stopped a production line, at great professional risk to herself, during a new product launch in order to get a machine guard made and fitted. Why the professional risk? Because customer technologists were on site to watch the launch, the pressure was intense, and if things hadn’t gone well she would have lost her job.

Or the engineering team-leader in another company who stopped an engineer working on broken-down production machinery to ask the engineer the question;

“What do we make here?”

Which was met with a rather incredulous stare and the answer:

“…Er, chewing gum” (thinks to self; “…you idiot, it’s a chewing gum factory – the clue is in the name”)

“Do you want to die for chewing gum?”

“…Er, No”

“No. Didn’t think so. So before you rush in to the job, let’s just take a minute and think about this shall we …”

All of these events were occasions when people showed where their priorities lay. What they personally thought was important. They were all done with absolute conviction. And they all evoked an emotional response.

Word also got around. I learned very early in my career that the grapevine in a factory works at the speed of light. These stories spread and in some cases almost became the stuff of legend. They got embedded into the local culture. And they got recollected and retold (which, let’s face it, is what I am doing now).

To finish this reflection I would like to refer you to Hill Street Blues. This was a fantastic US cop drama on TV in the 1980s. In it, one of the main characters, Sergeant Phil Esterhaus, finishes every morning roll call with the same line:

“Hey! Let’s be careful out there.”

You can see a clip here

In fact, he finished every roll call, in every episode in every series that he was in, with that same line. If you watch this video you can see how the actor (Michael Conrad) starts to play with the line as it develops cult status.

Now as a specific instruction this line is trite advice. It does not make or keep anyone safe. He never tells anyone how to be careful, nor what to be careful of. From a “safety management” point of view this is useless. Equivalent to writing on an accident investigation report “told worker to take more care in future”. If you wrote this in answer to a NEBOSH exam question you would not get a mark for it. Too general. Too woolly.

But as a demonstration of safety leadership it is second to none.

There are two things going on here:

The first is that as the series unfolds it became clear that Sergeant Esterhaus is speaking with absolute conviction. He is demonstrating “authentic” leadership (to use the label), speaking from the heart and building trust with the people he is communicating with.

The second is that he is putting a key message in peoples’ heads right at the end of the briefing. This message is, therefore, the last thing that they will hear before going to work and the one thing that they are most likely to retain and recall later on in the day. The fact that you are more likely to recall the last thing that you hear from any message communicated to you is called the “recency effect”.

When the cops are making decisions later in the day about how to act they will use lots of decision-making shortcuts. In psychology these mental shortcuts are called “heuristics”. One such shortcut is the “availability heuristic”. This is where you use the immediate example that comes to mind as a way to shortcut the decision making process and you then act on that decision.

The first thing that pops into your head is the most available thing that will help you decide how to act…and the first thing that pops into your head is the last thing that you remember hearing.

So what Esterhaus is doing is giving them a clear, unambiguous message from the heart that they will use in their decision making about how to act later in the day.


If you are curious about leadership, different leadership styles and the psychology of decision making then the NEBOSH/ HSE Health and Safety Leadership Excellence course may be of interest.

If you want to understand the impact of your leadership style and personal behaviour on the safety culture of your organisation and the safety-related behaviour of its people then you are the target audience.

Dr Jim Phelpstead BSc, PhD, CMIOSH

RRC Consultant Tutor