First-time managers face a variety of challenges in their new role. Unfortunately, many are not prepared for those challenges and underperform as a result, according to a variety of research studies.

When the new manager is in a safety role, and workers’ well-being and even lives are on the line, effective leadership training is especially important. With mentoring and coaching increasingly recognized as effective tools to develop effective new managers, industry leaders are now incorporating them into safety management training programs.

Last month, ProAct Safety announced three new mentoring and coaching programs for new safety leaders in response to the volume of customer requests the consulting firm has received for such offerings. The three programs take new leaders from an introduction to leadership through execution and accountability and, finally, an advanced program focused on goals and strategy.

“We call ourselves safety excellence consultants,” says Terry Mathis, founder and CEO of ProAct Safety. “We don’t do basic compliance-based safety; we get the companies that have done everything they know to do and still have a level of accidents and want to get to a level of excellence.” Leadership is key to achieving that excellence.

Incorporating Coaching and Mentoring Into Multimodal Safety Training

Successful safety leadership requires two different skill sets, says Rachel Walla, CSP, owner of SnapFox Safety: technical skills and people skills. While safety leaders must understand the mechanics of the industry they’re working in, they also must be able to work with senior managers to gain support for new policies and procedures and to “balance production and safety needs.”

Katie Martinelli, a learning and development analyst at High Speed Training, says that safety training will also require online and classroom training. However, if “organizations invest in developing the coaching and mentoring skills of their in-house experts, they can create blended activities that combine online and face-to-face learning activities that continue to ensure safety while increasing flexibility and cost-effectiveness.”

While the two terms are often confused, coaching and mentoring are different tools that have unique benefits, and using them in conjunction can maximize impact. In a white paper, Paul Schempp, Ph.D., who directs a lab at the University of Georgia that studies the development of expertise, identifies several distinctions between the two: Coaching is performance-driven, short-term and task-oriented, while mentoring is development-driven, long-term and relationship-oriented. In coaching, the coach sets the agenda, while in mentoring, the person being mentored sets it. Finally, the relationship between a coach and a coachee is typically formal and professional, while a mentoring relationship blends the professional and the personal.

What should coaching and mentoring focus on? Perhaps the most important skill new safety leaders need to learn isn’t a skill at all, Mathis says. It’s a change in mindset.

Most leaders think of their safety professionals as “a variable to be controlled” or “a problem to be wrestled with,” he says, rather than as the clients of their safety program. As a result, they make assumptions about what their employees need rather than asking them. “I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve worked with recently, where I go out and interview workers on the shop floor or in the field, and they say, ‘I really wish the … managers would ask us before they make these changes in our workplace. Sometimes, they create more problems than they solve.’”

Building a Positive Safety Culture

Martinelli says the first step in using coaching and mentoring to improve safety is to address the culture of the organization.

“Workplace safety can sometimes be seen as unnecessary or simply ‘box-ticking’ — until someone gets hurt,” she says. “It will be much easier to develop safety leaders within an organization if there is a top-down positive safety culture that celebrates safety instead of viewing it as an unnecessary annoyance.” This culture should include “a supportive, blame-free atmosphere” so that employees are comfortable talking to their coaches and mentors about difficult topics.

A positive safety culture will also mean that senior leaders are on board with mentoring and coaching programs, and this attitude will “trickle down” to everyone else, Martinelli adds. Heidi Pozzo, a consultant and a former executive in the construction and manufacturing industries, agrees that a culture of safety must start at the top. She recommends creating a safety committee made up of people from across the organization and across levels, starting every meeting (including board meetings and executive meetings) with a safety topic, and reviewing every safety incident with the executive team.

“When people see safety is a priority and a value, they want to get involved,” Pozzo says. “The professional safety organization should be a resource for people across the organization and not a policing group. By effectively partnering, people will draw them in.”

For a long time, Mathis says, safety “has been policing, not coaching.” By developing a positive safety culture and implementing mentoring and coaching programs that really drive that culture home, you can help change that trend and help new safety leaders manage great employee relationships and create a safer organization.