Safety performance is a complex matter. That's actually the good news: a great many variables mean you have a lot of options to address serious injuries and fatalities (SIF) and improve the health and wellbeing of the people with whom you work.

You already know that changes in facilities, management systems, behavior, culture and leadership each impact safety outcomes. Safety excellence demands that you address all of them, yet we know we can't do everything at once. To further complicate things, these factors are not discreet but intensely interrelated. So where to start? How to pick among them? What first move sets you up for success at every stage?

The short answer is: Each of these possible avenues loops back to leadership. Sure, you can build safer facilities, but they won't be maintained without a strong safety culture, just like you can improve your safety management systems, but who will use them if they don't value them?

So maybe you lead with culture. Indeed, many positive outcomes flow from improvements in culture, but culture itself flows from leadership. Or maybe you concentrate on the necessary conditions for safer behavior. That's good. Behavior is critical. But while behavior closely correlates with performance, it's most productive to see behavior not so much as the driver but as the result of facilities, systems, culture and leadership.

Consider Volkswagen tampering with emissions performance. Consider that their engineers were so afraid to say they couldn't meet targets set by the CEO that taking illegal actions like hiking up the tire pressure and coding the emissions software to misreport represented a more appealing alternative than acknowledging a goal wouldn't be achieved.

That behavior was shaped by acts of leadership. It was informed by any number of messages about when to speak up and what was acceptable and how to manage setbacks. It didn't have to be official policy, or even said directly, for the engineers to arrive at an understanding of what leadership expected, and act accordingly.

The Role of Leadership

Let us emphasize the role of leadership in creating a culture where such behavior became possible. An institution's corporate ethics and value for social responsibility come from the top. The same is true for values like innovation and workplace safety. Culture itself comes from the top, and leaders always are creating culture – always, for better or for worse, whether they mean to or not.

It happens in the tone of an email and the allocation of resources. What you say and what you do, not to mention what you don't say or do, communicate your values to the people who work with you. Your actions and inactions already are influencing health and safety. The safety culture you create matters. Make sure you are sending the messages you want to be heard.

The match between what leadership says and what leadership does particularly is relevant to safety management systems. Safety management systems, including fall protection and safety rules, require leadership or they simply won't be used. It's leadership that makes equipment available and its proper use routine, even when competing pressures to work fast and cheap are intense.

When Juan Cerezo fatally fell from a 14th floor façade in Manhattan in September 2015, the Department of Buildings opened an investigation into the availability of a safety harness or other fall protection at the jobsite and whether there was a mandate for workers like Cerezo to use them.

When a retaining wall collapsed that same month at a jobsite in Brooklyn, burying Fernando Vanegas under cinder blocks and killing him, the tragedy occured after a series of safety complaints to the Department of Buildings, including workers abating asbestos without protective masks or suits.

If a worker is in the position where their only protection is behavior, management already has failed that worker on a number of fronts.