Health and Safety Advice: Come to your senses!

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What image do you conjure up when you say the words health and safety? People engaged in a business critical activity? Or do your eyes glaze over picturing men in grey suits and frowns, tutting whilst placing crosses on tick lists? It’s probably the latter because the term has become part of the pantheon of business-speak cliché and if the organisational equivalent of UKIP existed, there’s every chance you’d vote for them just to avoid having to spend time thinking about the subject.

How about the term “wellbeing”? Well, it fares slightly better but suffers from the same association, with clichéd imagery based on misunderstanding and preconception, seasoned with a large dose of cynicism. Yet health, safety and wellbeing make good business sense for the business and its stakeholders alike and when an organisation invests the time and effort to build a culture in which these terms mean something and are part of that organisation’s usp, tangible business benefits flow.

The concepts behind the terminology are simple really. The sole purpose of the safety practitioner is to protect people from injury while at work and to protect the business from the financial and reputational impacts of potential incidents and enhance their brand in the process. The same applies to the wellbeing practitioner with the focus on sustainable performance levels, albeit safety is something most stakeholders take for granted as a basic requirement whereas health and wellbeing is becoming an increasingly important factor both when recruiting employees and doing all they can to keep them.

We were working with the leaders of a petro-chemical company not that long ago, who found themselves suffering from a spiralling pattern of serious safety “non-conformances”, poor employee survey results and sliding attendance levels. This was undermining their KPIs and was causing a great deal of damage to their brand.

Part of our role was to take an objective view of the leadership culture on-site and it soon became apparent that the issue wasn’t down to the safety procedures themselves. The issue was that the culture in which those processes were being implemented was undermining the systems and procedures and the culture started at Board level and filtered down. In short, the problem wasn’t a technical one but was down to how people were talking to and briefing each other.

All the people processes from induction through to performance management and communication, especially team briefings, were infected with a non-sensory disease.

Managers, in response to the terminology in their performance contracts and appraisals, had adopted corporate double speak. Terms like “terminal events” were used to describe deaths; KPIs to describe goals and standards and “executive” to describe the people doing the job. Sitting through manager-led team briefs was the engagement equivalent of listening to Andy Murray read the telephone directory, no context, no narrative, no story, no emotion but half an hour of bad news, excuses, bollockings and orders. They became as popular as a Monday colonoscopy.

The answer was to re-train the leaders, re-connect them with the stories that defined their careers and get them talking with emotion but more importantly facilitating dialogue and listening, listening, listening. After re-engineering the behaviours and re-connecting the people, the next role was to re-personalise the appraisal, goal-setting and communication processes and to re-position the core values so they had relevance and meaning. We introduced masterclasses led by champions within the business, re-configured the internal comms channels and its wasn’t long before the “KPIs” were back on track.

As respected health and safety expert David Gunniss puts it:

“Most line management and HSE departments interface as per this diag (below). It’s important that every manager, supervisor and worker has a job description and that their performance contract details their HSE responsibilities and that there is an HSE Policy document and Safety Management System. But this simply provides the platform.”

As with communication, for example, it is defined by whether messages are received and understood, not just by crafting the message. Little point having processes if no one is engaged enough with them to bring them to life.

“Workplace culture, both the physical environment and the way people behave towards each other is absolutely vital. It’s fine having the documents in place and understanding the lines of command, but there needs to be trust between leaders and workers and between leaders and their HSE function. If the system’s going to work properly everyone needs to understand the benefits and to take personal responsibility for what they can influence and that means feeling a sense of belonging, ownership and community.”

The benefits to the petro-chemical client were obvious when you consider the costs of getting the processes wrong in terms of fatalities, environmental disasters, morale and litigation and the damage all of this can do to the brand. Or put another way, sound advice from an HSE professional or culture change practitioner can not only prevent the company and its officers from ending up in court but can help create an environment in which innovation flows from actively engaged employees who feel cared for at work. Professional, objective advice can be expensive, but consider the costs of getting it wrong. And in these tough days, who wouldn’t benefit from that sort of unique selling point as part of their customer and employee proposition or when bidding for new contracts?

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