Elon Musk may not be a safety professional, but he has hit on some critical elements of safety culture and safety leadership that many leaders (and some safety professionals) don’t understand. An article by Fred Lambert on the web-based news site Electrek describes Musk’s reaction to injury rates at Tesla’s Fremont factory. Lambert notes that Musk is planning to get personally involved in safety improvement and quotes an email Musk sent to employees in early June in which Musk expressed his concern for the safety and wellbeing of employees, and his plan for improvement. Two statements from this email are particularly notable.
The first relates to motivation at the frontline: “It breaks my heart when someone is injured building cars and trying their best to make Tesla successful.” It’s clear Musk understands that when people get hurt on the job, it is rarely because they are lazy, they don’t care, they aren’t careful, or they are ‘bad employees.’ Instead, it is usually because they are trying hard to do the right thing, make the product, meet the deadline, please the customer—to make the company successful. Understanding this naturally leads to a more positive approach to safety management.
The second comment relates to the importance of attempting to understand behavior and safety in context. Musk says that he wants to personally talk with injured employees as soon as they are well, “…so that I can understand from them exactly what we need to do to make it better. I will then go down to the production line and perform the same task that they perform.” This statement underscores a no blame approach to safety in which leaders first seek to understand how an incident occurred, including physical conditions, as well as variables which may have influenced worker choices. By saying he will go and perform the same task, he is acknowledging that no one can understand a job, and how difficult it may be to do that job safely, until they have done it. Too often leaders superficially assess how well they have set employees up to work safely. A common management sentiment is, “We trained them, we gave them safety equipment, we held safety meetings, and they still got hurt.” The implication is that it is therefore the worker’s fault. Musk starts with a very different assumption—that it is management’s job to figure out how the company failed the injured worker. Musk pairs that with a collaborative, problem-solving approach in which he plans to work with injured workers to fix those things that contribute to injuries so others don’t get hurt.
I don’t know if Musk has done a lot of reading on safety culture and safety leadership, but given all he has on his plate, it doesn’t seem likely. Whatever the case, it is clear that he has hit on foundational safety leadership strategies that make a significant difference: (1) approach injuries as problems to be solved, not frontline mistakes to be corrected, and (2) when possible, do the job in order to understand how the equipment, processes, management strategies, and production pressures influence safety choices. When it isn’t possible for leaders to do the job(s) themselves, they can work with employees to better understand the physical conditions, and equally important, the behavioral contingencies that increase risk. The net effect is the same—management learns more about what truly contributes to incidents and can work collaboratively with frontline employees to correct them.
For more on how to create a sustainable safety culture, read Safe by Accident? Leadership Practices that Build a Sustainable Safety Culture.