The Time-Crunched Safety Manager

How do you get past the daily brushfires to become a true leader?

April 2016, - Department

by Laura McMillan

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As a time-crunched manager, focus is difficult.
As a time-crunched manager, focus is difficult.

"Today is the day,” Mike says to himself as he parks. “Gonna put the numbers down on the types of crashes we have — figure out what the real problem is.” Within 30 seconds of sitting down, Mike gets a call. A driver was in an accident overnight, and worse, the driver was cited for DUI.

“Maybe tomorrow will be the day,” he mutters. But then, he said the same thing last week.

Managing safety and training in a fleet means rushing from one brushfire to another. Everyone feels the time crunch. There’s a ton to do, both at a strategic level and down in the nitty-gritty. So how do you excel? How do you make a difference when you’re juggling priorities, switching tasks, and trying to extinguish that daily brushfire? How can you catch your breath, look at the big picture, and execute a plan that works?

Here’s what we know causes the best safety program intentions to fail:

  • A lack of top-down leadership support
  • Lack of “buy in” from employees
  • Lack of focus — trying to fix too many things yourself
  • Poor execution
  • No results tracking

Success for safety and training are tough to measure. When you do your job, nothing happens. But once you start measuring the performance of your fleet, the formula for improving becomes quite simple:

Focus + Leadership + Structured Program + Disciplined Delivery = Results

Here we’ll talk about the first two steps in that formula.

Learn to focus

What would you give up to gain a little focus? As a time-crunched manager, focus is difficult. But the one thing you can control is how you spend your attention and time. Focus requires sticking to your priorities. Starting a new project or initiative should mean you’ve cleared your capacity to handle it. That may mean finishing an existing project, outsourcing it, delegating it, or abandoning it. It is perfectly reasonable to ask yourself: “What if we didn’t pursue this new initiative? What would happen?”

Gaining focus often means changing old processes and habits. It may mean you outsource all non-injury and non-towaway incident reports to driver managers or dispatch. Maybe you outsource the creation of training content. It may mean traveling to distribution centers less and providing basic or new-hire training online.

Doing this will allow you to focus on the big stuff. The Pareto Principle (popularly known as the “80/20 rule”) suggests that 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts. Which is good news, because you’re already really busy.

First, you need to list, categorize and prioritize your pain points. Listing them is pretty easy. Categorizing them might call for a little creativity. For example, what if you categorized the problems by root cause? Is it a lack of knowledge, or just lax attitudes? Is the new electronic log implementation really a disaster, or did training get glossed over?

Prioritizing pain points can also call for creativity. By categorizing all small incidents — like backing incidents — you could find the cost of each is small, but the overall cost is quite expensive. Alternately, injuries are (hopefully) very infrequent but inversely expensive.

First, you need to list, categorize and prioritize your pain points.
First, you need to list, categorize and prioritize your pain points.

Leader or manager?

The truth is that you need both leaders and managers. Leaders push big changes, and good managers execute them. If you’re missing either, results will elude you.

But if no one in your company is truly pushing the change, then you must be the leader. What is the difference between a leader and a manager?

A leader:

  • Creates and communicates a vision for the future
  • Encourages others to commit to the vision
  • Motivates and inspires workers to overcome barriers
  • Encourages innovation
  • Helps the organization to develop by adapting to changing circumstances
  • Shows benefits of investments.

A manager:

  • Develops a plan and allocates resources
  • Sets objectives and organizes a schedule
  • Monitors situations
  • Focuses on order and efficiency
  • Ensures standards are met.
  • Meticulously tracks changes in costs and behaviors.

You need both leaders and managers. Leaders push big changes, and good managers execute them.
You need both leaders and managers. Leaders push big changes, and good managers execute them.

3 tips to improve safety leadership

How do you move from inspirational poster to real leadership? Take action! Here are some specific actions you can take:

1. Challenge the status quo

  • Are there new ways to improve health and safety?
  • Are all the involved parties — drivers, managers, dispatchers, and load planners — asking what they could’ve done differently, rather than pointing the finger at someone else?
  • Challenge others — ask what they could do to solve this problem.

2. Create a vision

  • Consult your team to find and set clear wellness and safety goals.
  • Involve others in planning and decision-making — everyone needs to have “skin in the game.”
  • Create a shared vision through those goals. Make people responsible by offering incentives and accountability.

3. Inspire others to be safe and healthy

  • Does everyone have the skills, abilities and resources to do their jobs safely? If not, why not? What can the organization do to fix that problem?
  • Plan enough time for work to be done in a safe and healthy way.
  • Share your expertise to help others overcome barriers.

Crunched for time, safety manager?  Take a moment to assess your priorities, focus on a few areas and whenever possible, take action like a leader.

Laura McMillan is VP of training development at Instructional Technologies Inc., which offers Pro-Tread online training for truck fleets and logistics companies. This article was authored under HDT editorial standards and style to provide useful information to our readers.


  1. 1. Paul Farrell [ April 25, 2016 @ 05:10AM ]

    Leveraging technology where possible can also help provide the over-tasked safety professional to let the "virtual safety clerk" share some of the mundane tasks, issuing reminders, stacking and sorting loss data for trends and root cause analysis. How about a part time, minimum wage intern from a local vo-tech school, or recent high school graduate looking for working experience? They could be taught to help out on the clerical side and begin to learn the industry by simply being there a day or two per week. Does your insurance safety (loss control) team have any "on-demand" services that flow out by email to you and/or your drivers each month? Can they provide resources that help you avoid re-creating the wheel? Lastly, gain the commitment of your boss to support your professional training and certification process - you'll increase your professional networking circle by attending classes, and you'll get strong, seasoned advice while distinguishing yourself as a true professonal in your field. NATMI and others provide programs to investigate.

  2. 2. Adam Kahn [ April 30, 2016 @ 05:50PM ]

    First. Great article. The safety manager is one of the most challenging positions within a trucking company. Often the team has the highest aspirations and the lowest budget. Second. I thought you did a nice job of capturing the challenges and opportunities for improvement. Nice work.


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