Last updated: 05.10.20

Can Safety Leadership programmes thrive in an age of social distancing?

Guest Blog Article by Karen J. Hewitt

The game changer for safety in the 21st century is the Safety conversation. Safety, to be really effective, is all about the conversation. And that’s because you can have the most robust safety systems in the world, but the day that something in the system fails, and history shows that it will, the only thing that will prevent injury and/or loss of life is a conversation - between the person who realises something is wrong, and the one who doesn’t and carries on regardless.

For every safety incident that ever happened, there was almost always someone who could have prevented it, but they failed to have a conversation about it, or at least failed in their attempt to have a conversation about it. Perhaps they spoke, but nobody listened. A Safety Leadership programme aims to make sure this doesn’t happen. It aims to empower everyone in the organisation to speak out, whenever they see anything that could put their co-workers at risk.  So far so good.  Everyone can have a conversation, can’t they?

Within organisations, however, there are many barriers to such a conversation, and the best Safety Leadership programmes identify them and attempt to remove them. They teach employees how to have effective Safety conversations and create a culture where they are welcomed. In our current Covid context, however, the very foundation of these conversations is ripped away. With social distancing the norm, we can’t just walk up to someone and have that conversation, unless we keep a two-metre distance. And Safety conversations are far too sensitive to shout. Social distancing also impacts how we train our employees to have these conversations. Suddenly, interactive workshops where we role play safety conversations have been called to a halt, and Zoom breakout rooms just aren’t the same.

At first sight, Safety Leadership in an age of social distancing faces serious challenges. Not only is the Safety conversation under threat, but our workers are so focused on one risk right now – Covid – that Safety conversations, about anything, feel like a luxury.

Social distancing also threatens the Safety Huddle, where the individual Safety conversation becomes a team conversation, and critical safety gaps are identified before workers start their shift.

If we look at Safety Leadership from this angle, the outlook is far from encouraging, but let’s go back to basics and think about what it is really designed to do.

Yes, Safety Leadership is all about the conversation, but it’s also about connecting people.  And we connect with people to influence them – to influence them to behave safely and inspire others to do the same.

When you have a conversation with someone, either formally or informally, research tells us that three things are important:

  • Your words
  • Your body language (and facial gestures), and,
  • Your tone of voice

We often think that words are the most important of these three, and words do have power, but body language and tone of voice have even more power to influence. So as long as someone can see you, you can influence them to behave safely.

Here are three ways to do it:

Use video

Video can be accessed by anyone, anywhere, via their mobile phone, and you can get some really short and simple safety reminders across, using body language and a tone of voice that show your viewer just how important the message is. Video can be standalone, posted on social media as a series, or integrated into an e-learning package for access whenever your people have a spare moment. It can be recorded from home, by people at all levels of your organisation, and with a human element that can only enhance your Safety Leadership message.

Ask for opinions

Another thing that connects people is being asked their opinion, and even virtual platforms with their chat functions and breakout rooms allow for a two-way conversation. You might also use this time to run a survey around Safety Leadership, and whether you do this electronically or on paper, it can all be done in a Covid-secure manner without people getting close to each other. This may not be the Safety conversation you originally planned, but it’s a valuable one all the same. What you hear may enable you to improve your Safety Leadership programme, and plan for a time when social distancing is no longer required.

Get personal

People also feel connected when something they hear resonates with them. Telling personal safety stories – about lessons learned from previous incidents or a time when someone acted to save a life – can change behaviour instantly. Why not start your own Safety Leadership podcast series, and issue your safety story of the week? They may not see your body language, but they can sense it through your voice, and the tone of your voice will carry an influence of its own.


Safety Leadership, then, can reign strong in times of social distancing and your Safety Leadership programme can continue in full force.  You just have to think a bit differently. As Albert Einstein wisely said: “You can’t solve a problem on the same level it was created.  You have to rise above it, to another level.”

You certainly need a new platform to deliver your Safety Leadership programme today, and a new megaphone. And when you think about it, you might even need a new message because your audience aren’t the same people they were six months ago.

Arguably the time is ripe for Safety Leadership, with every single one of us acutely aware of our role in keeping us all safe.

Are you ready to capitalise?

Karen J. Hewitt designs and delivers bespoke Engagement, Leadership and Culture Change programmes in the context of Health and Safety.  She is the author of “Employee Confidence – the new rules of Engagement”, finalist in the Leadership category of the Business Book Awards 2019. 

Virtual College are specialists in the design and delivery of global and multi-lingual e-learning solutions to support behavioural and culture change programmes for Health and Safety.  For more information, please email