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Safety culture and leadership

29 March 2019

After a spike in workplace injuries at a Tesla electric car plant in 2017, Elon Musk issued an email to staff which read as follows: "No words can express how much I care about your safety and well-being. It breaks my heart when someone is injured building cars and trying their best to make Tesla successful. Going forward, I’ve asked that every injury be reported directly to me, without exception… I would like to meet every injured person."

Image: SpaceX
Image: SpaceX

He continued: "At Tesla, we lead from the front line, not from safe and comfortable ivory tower."

Health and Safety media were full of praise, lauding the billionaire entrepreneur as a boss who took safety culture seriously within his companies. 

This, for example, was a reaction from one H&S specialist: "There are several key takeaways in Musk’s email message that apply to safety leadership… Support and buy-in at the top creates a trickle-down effect when it comes to the development of safety culture in the workplace."

Musk blotted his copy book rather fundamentally, however, when he took marijuana on a podcast streamed on the Internet last September. This caused questions to be raised at NASA’s highest levels, the Washington Post reported, and the US space agency said it would undertake a “pretty invasive” look at the safety culture of another of Musk’s companies, SpaceX, which is a major NASA spaceflight subcontractor.

NASA, it seems, is worried that Musk’s increasingly eccentric behaviour could trickle down the management chain and impact one of its key programs negatively. Perhaps the most important message here is that it is vital that leaders are consistent in the values they project to build and protect the safety culture of an organisation.

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